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Review: `A Christmas Carol' suffocates in glitz

The Associated Press, Wednesday, November 4, 2009, 11:13am (PST)

Lionel Barrymore. Alastair Sim. Laurence Olivier. Albert Finney. George C. Scott. Bill Murray. Michael Caine. Mr. Magoo. Scrooge McDuck.

Of the many to play Ebenezer Scrooge, Jim Carrey now adds his name, starring in Disney's new 3-D animation version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." The appeal of the part is clear: You get villain and redemptive hero rolled into one, plus you spend most of the movie in your pajamas.

But the allure of Scrooge alone wasn't enough for Carrey. In this latest incarnation of Dickens' Christmas fable, Carrey plays not only the penny-pinching miser, young and old, but also the three ghosts that visit him: the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.

Carrey's zest for the undertaking comes through clearly enough — after all, the rubber-faced "Ace Ventura" and "Man on the Moon" actor has always been a contortionist. His Scrooge is exceptionally gaunt, topped by limp white hair, and features a downturned mouth below an Ichabod Crane nose.

When Scrooge breaks into a sudden jig or the Ghost of Christmas Past — rendered here (faithfully to the book) as a kind of flickering candle — gives a comic twitch, it's easy to recognize the actor behind the animation.

But on the whole, the film feels suffocated by its design, and the liveliness of Carrey and the rest of the cast (including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Cary Elwes) struggles to shine through.

For a distinctly modern approach, director Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump," "Cast Away") opted to use performance-capture animation, having the actors movements and expressions transferred from live-action to animation. Zemeckis has previously employed the technique in "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf."

Unfortunately, the characters come across oddly inanimate. Many have vacant, almost ghostly eyes and closer resemble the figures that might be used in an architect's model. It seems a curious decision to go to such lengths to make a thoroughly human story so inhuman.

It's a shame, too, because the architecture of this "Christmas Carol" is at times striking. The mid-19th century London of Dickens' novella is painted with care, animated to be dramatically lit by candlelight. Alan Silvestri's bombastic score is also stirring.

Zemeckis largely hues closely to the text, allowing the audience to soak up Dickens' language, still fresh and familiar and musical.

But too much of the film is geared around 3-D wizardry. Unneeded sequences pop up for purely "wow" baiting, such as an airborne Scrooge shot skyward to the moon, and a gratuitous chase sequence as he runs from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (who has now wrestled up a chariot of black stallions).

Film adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" are nearly annual events. That's not a bad thing, necessarily. Dickens' story is about as sturdy a one as we've got — it would be nearly impossible to mar what might be the finest ghost story this side of "Hamlet."

But it's unfortunate that this should be the 2009 edition. The time, not just the season, is ripe for "A Christmas Carol." It is, of course, about a greedy industrial capitalist of the 1800s (Scrooge recalls his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, as "a good man of business") who learns to see the value of family and charity.

How ever could such a story be relevant today?

"A Christmas Carol," a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release, is rated PG for scary sequences and images. Running time: 95 minutes. Two humbugs out of four.

———

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G — General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.

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