The new Disney A Christmas Carol is another epic achievement in motion-capture animation, advancing the art form closer to photo-realism than The Polar Express or Beowulf. Dazzling, ornate visuals take us to the snowy London of 1837, swooping over its digital rooftops and down its digital chimneys. Faces take on musculature, expression and detail.
But like those earlier films, and certainly to a greater degree given the pathos, warmth and wit of the story, A Christmas Carol lacks and needs — desperately — that human touch.
Cinematic literalist Robert Zemeckis, who in Forrest Gump had a character say "I'm going to San Francisco" and then scored the scene with the pop song If You're Going to San Francisco, gives us Dickens straight, no chaser. He grasps the tone of the Charles Dickens novel (darker than most film versions). He lays out the familiar story beats and even more familiar touchstone lines.
"Make some slight provision for the poor. ... Decrease the surplus population ... boiled in their own pudding ... Christmas? Bah, humbug."
And of course, that child's cockney declaration: "Gaw-bless us, every one!"
But as Jim Carrey slings an English accent for Scrooge, an Irish one for the Ghost of Christmas Past and a vague Scots one for his Ghost of Christmas Present, and as his skinnier, more curmudgeonly digital self does little Scrooge dances and collapses into grief, I wanted to see the real Jim Carrey perform that.
And I really missed having the great and real Gary Oldman, as Bob Cratchit, registering grief at Tiny Tim's fate and heartfelt shock at Scrooge's conversion.
What Zemeckis delivers is a spooky Christmas Carol, aptly released just a week after Halloween. A creepy quiet hangs over the tale of a wealthy miser who is taught the meaning of Christmas by a series of ghosts — corpses come to life, or in the case of the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come, a spectral shadow, the literal Grim Reaper come to show Scrooge the error and evil of his ways.
The laughs are few and very far between. Carrey's Ghost of Christmas Past is a candle, and the animated version of the actor goofs around with the idea of "flickering." But that only makes one wonder, "Why cast Carrey if you're not going to get him to be funny?" Turning him into the Roman god Bacchus (the standard way of interpreting Christmas Present) and making him laugh and laugh is no substitute for the playfulness each of those roles allows.
The digital avatars for Carrey, Oldman, Colin Firth (as Scrooge's nephew Fred) and Robin Wright Penn (as Fan and Belle) aren't particularly flattering to the actors, who are recognizable but given Dickensian features.
But by Fezziwig, that story still works and tugs at the heart. It would even if each ghost's visit weren't scored with overly suitable Christmas carols.
The chilling moments are many, as this gorgeous Christmas Carol embraces, better than most, the novel's cautionary and always timely message. When it comes to money, love and compassion, stinginess is no virtue. You simply cannot take any of them with you.