Robert Zemeckis is as committed to motion-capture CG animation as Ebenezer Scrooge is to pinching pennies, and with A Christmas Carol, his third effort with the technique, the director comes closest yet to justifying his obsession. Unfortunately, close, as they say, only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and the effects explosions that frequently engulf Zemeckis’s second computerized Yuletide saga (after 2004’s The Polar Express) are at once magnificent and wholly wrongheaded, shifting the focus of Charles Dickens’s timeless classic from themes of greed, generosity, and redemption to rollercoaster thrills aimed at pleasing the under-17 set. What with the narrative’s time-hopping and supernatural specters, Dickens’s tale certainly lends itself to some flash-and-sizzle, and if Zemeckis’s over-the-top treatment gets anything right, it’s the sense of overwhelming otherworldly terror, of grand-scale divine intervention of a most unsettling sort, that consumes Scrooge (Jim Carrey) during his pow-wows with the chained apparition of his deceased partner Marley and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come. However, unlike Beowulf, whose warrior-monster conflict was ideally suited to elaborate camera-whooshing flight and fights, Dickens’s book is inherently about a single man’s soul, a focus far too often lost amid this film version’s extravagant spectacle.
Still, in purely technological terms, Zemeckis’s third time with motion-capture is a relative charm, as his digital tools have finally overcome their most significant prior problem: eyes. While supporting and background characters boast less detail than their primary compatriots, Zemeckis’s Scrooge is an animated marvel, not only with regard to his intricate skin texture and rickety comportment, but his eyes, which—unlike the dead gazes found throughout Polar Express and Beowulf—exhibit a persuasive spark of life. Part of the legendary miser’s visual credibility is due to Carrey’s spot-on performance, as well as the fact that aged skin and creaky, slow-moving bodies suit motion-capture better than youthful complexions (which come off as plasticine and unreal) and movement (which has a slippery, gliding quality). For both these reasons, Scrooge is, aesthetically speaking, a consistent success, something that can’t quite be said of Gary Oldman’s Bob Cratchit, Colin Firth’s Fred, or Bob Hoskins’s Fezziwig, all of whom have that stilted-mannequin appearance that calls direct, unflattering attention to the CG production work at play and, in turn, frustrates true emotional immersion into the whiz-bang proceedings.
Carrey’s duty as not only Scrooge but also the three spirits makes thematic sense but nonetheless comes off as a sore-thumb distraction, as does Oldman’s double-dip as Tiny Tim, here relegated to catchphrase-spouting peripheral prop. Carol is often alight with wondrous imagery tinted with malevolence, sorrow, and regret, from the ethereality of the candle-shaped Ghost of Christmas Past, to the chuckling Santa-Zeus Ghost of Christmas Present (who accosts Scrooge with the type of zombie-ish criminal and whore for whom the money lender has such disdain), to Scrooge clinging to the shadowy Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come’s bony finger so as not to plunge into his own cavernous grave. Especially in this last instance, as well as Scrooge’s frantic video game-ish zooms across the city and countryside (one for each Ghost visit), Zemeckis utilizes 3D to potently enhance his animation’s depth. Alas, after an impressively patient, creepy opening half that taps into the ghost-story horror of Dickens’s tale, such theme-park business overwhelms the action, a fatal flaw considering that it becomes dominant at just the moment of Scrooge’s crucial, underdramatized crisis of conscience and ensuing transformation and salvation. A clear step in the right direction for Zemeckis and his pet techno-project, Carol nonetheless ultimately sabotages itself by prizing the hectic over the heartfelt. In doing so, it proves not so much bah-humbug as merely ho-hum.