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Disney's A Christmas Carol

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Visually Sumptuous 'Carol'
Mary Pols, Special to MSN Movies

You have to give Robert Zemeckis credit for persistence. His first foray into motion-capture technology, the 2004 adaptation of the beautiful children's book "The Polar Express," was greeted with some dismay. People found it creepy; that train conductor looked and sounded like Tom Hanks, but for those cold, dead eyes. Zemeckis tried again with the PG-13 rated "Beowulf" in 2007 and won over some audiences, particularly those with a thirst for violence and a nude, albeit digitally so, Angelina Jolie.

Now he's back for another try, this time with a project where cold, dead eyes are actually required, an adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic story, "A Christmas Carol," in 3-D. And for the first time, as snowflakes flutter down on a scene of London, decked in exquisite Victorian glory, and threaten to land on the knees of the person right in front of you, his obsession with motion capture actually makes some sense. The movie may be yet another retelling of an iconic story (there have been dozens of filmed or taped versions of "Carol"), but visually it is often quite breathtaking. This is not some tender telling for the children, but rather a full-fledged ghost story, with doorknobs that suddenly turn into death's heads and creatures from beyond who have difficulty keeping their jawbones connected to their head bones.

Jim Carrey takes on the role of the miserable and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, going where so many have gone before, including Bill Murray, Alastair Sim, Albert Finney and Michael Caine (who was accompanied by Muppets). Through the magic of technology, Carrey manages to rack up another seven credits playing Scrooges of many ages as well as all the ghosts but Marley's (Gary Oldman handles that role, as well as those of absurdly apple-cheeked Tiny Tim and his father, Bob Cratchit). Between the nose that hooks downward and the chin that rises up to meet it, the digital Scrooge is hardly recognizable as Carrey.

But the voice is definitely Carrey, as malleable as his face. Mostly Scrooge maintains his English accent, but occasionally it turns into something American, or vaguely Indian sounding. And at times, when the story is racing along, he's muttering so madly it becomes tiring to try to decipher what he's saying. As the Ghost of Christmas Past, who appears as a flame atop a candle, Carrey speaks in an unpleasant, slithery whisper; if he lived next door, you'd be checking the sex offender registry. As the Ghost of Christmas Present, he's swathed in a red beard and prone to bouts of creepy false laughter (I started to have "Cable Guy" flashbacks). Even at a digital remove, this is a lot of Jim Carrey, and while there is a peculiar pleasure in recognizing his distinctive body movements take over the frame of an ancient man as thin as a pin, there are times when it feels like too much.

But the movie remains Zemeckis' -- there's nothing like steering a digital ship to assure command -- and that's a good thing, generally speaking. (I could have happily done without the all-too-modern action sequence involving Scrooge fleeing on snowy streets from the terror of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, which looks like an anorexic Darth Vader, but less friendly.) Signs of his devotion to the story are evidenced everywhere; he must have been the kind of child who fantasized about climbing right into his books. Many of the film's scenes are modeled, quite precisely, on the artwork of John Leech, who provided the illustrations for Dickens' first edition of "A Christmas Carol" in 1843. If Dickens had been capable of time travel, back in his day, and somehow whisked himself off to a multiplex in 2009, I'm guessing he'd get a kick out of this "Carol." That is, if he weren't the immediate victim of a 3-D-induced heart attack, or overwhelmed with sadness at the notion of a medium that eliminates all need for a reader's individual imagination.

Mary Pols is a Bay Area-based journalist. She reviews movies for Time.com and was for many years a film critic for the San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. She is also the author of a memoir, "Accidentally on Purpose," published in 2008 by Ecco/ Harper Collins. When she's inspired, usually by something weird, she blogs about it at www.maryfpols.com.
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