Nice effects, but spirit needs to visit

As Ebenezer Scrooge (not to mention The Grinch), Jim Carrey aims to put a lump of coal in the Christmas stocking and a lump of emotion in the throat. That he fails is not for lack of effort.

In Disney's A Christmas Carol, Robert Zemeckis' visually immersive but emotionally uninvolving spectacle, Carrey's performance as the miserly misanthrope is lost amid effects more typically encountered in theme-park and video-game adventures. (P.S.: Is it just me, or does it also peeve you that the Mouse House claims proprietary rights on Dickens' title?)

While Zemeckis is scrupulously loyal to the outlines of Charles Dickens' ghost story, the tone of his relentlessly macabre film is more Halloween night than Christmas morning. (Yes, it is rated PG. But the only household in which this rating should be observed is Tim Burton's. For anyone under the age of 10, the experience might be too creepy.)

As with his The Polar Express and Beowulf, Zemeckis created the characters of A Christmas Carol by means of motion capture. This is the process by which the actors' facial and physical expressions are translated onto digital models. Essentially the bone that imparts some human flavor to the animation soup, "mocap," as motion capture is familiarly known, is blended into digitally animated scenes.

Yet set against Zemeckis' photorealistic backdrop of London circa 1843, the stylized characters seen in the film at best resemble waxwork figures. (At worst, Scrooge is wizened and knobby as a potato beginning to sprout.) While the filmmaker taps the considerable talents of Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins and Robin Wright Penn, the end result is meltdown at Madame Tussaud's.

This, despite Zemeckis' keen eye for composition and sense for dynamic movement in a film that zooms in, out, over and through London like the applications enabling Google Earth.

I admired the film's carefully crafted elements, especially its painterly use of flickering candlelight and shadow. But I was unmoved because Zemeckis failed to integrate these elements to dramatic effect.

As spectacle, the film is not uninteresting. It represents one road taken by filmed entertainment in that A Christmas Carol surrounds the viewer in a 180-degree panorama so suggestive that at some moments I thought the snowflakes falling on the London streets and onto Scrooge's top hat likewise were dusting my lap. (Keep in mind that I saw it in Imax 3-D.)

Though physically I felt inside the scene, I couldn't have felt emotionally more distant. Blame this in part to the mocap process that simulates the human without capturing the human spirit.

Zemeckis here is compelled more by his technological toolbox than by the moral conversion of Dickens' most famous character. Just as Scrooge would rather live in the dark than spend tuppence on a candle, in Disney's A Christmas Carol, Zemeckis would rather push the technological envelope than balance effects with story.

Lost in Zemeckis' whizbang zooms and swoops and ghostly grotesquerie is the evergreen about the man who sees how his stinginess has spiritually deformed him and symbolically crippled others, the man who ultimately chooses light over darkness.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at

Disney's A Christmas Carol

Directed by Robert Zemeckis. With Bob Hoskins, Gary Oldman, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, Colin Firth, Fionnula Flanagan, Jim Carrey. Distributed by Walt Disney Studios.

Running time: 1 hours, 36 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for scary sequences and images).