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Movie Review

A Christmas Carol

A spirited ‘Carol’: Director Zemeckis makes a leap in creative visualization with a stunning, fresh retelling of the Dickens classic

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / November 6, 2009

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Every generation may get the “Christmas Carol’’ it deserves, from the all-dancing, all-singing horrors of “Scrooge’’ (1970) to the brash comic mugging of “Scrooged’’ (1988) to the sleaze of the recent “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.’’ (The best? All votes for George C. Scott and Mr. Magoo will be counted, but anyone who puts in the research knows the 1951 British “Christmas Carol’’ starring Alastair Sim is numero uno.)

How does Jim Carrey fit into this? The early 2000s are a time of relentless technical whizbangery - if Dickens were alive, he’d probably be tweeting “Martin Chuzzlewit’’ - so the latest “Christmas Carol’’ is a thing of bits and bytes. More than that, it’s filmmaker Robert Zemeckis’s latest adventure in 3-D motion-capture technology, in which live actors are filmed on a stage, then “redrawn’’ with digitized skin and costumes and placed into wholly imagined wonder-worlds.

“The Polar Express’’ (2004) was Zemeckis’s first stab at the process, and the verdict is split between those who thought that was a fine movie and those who felt they were watching corpses at play. If you’re of the latter persuasion (I am), you’ll probably head into “A Christmas Carol’’ with dread (I did).

Shockingly, the new film turns out to be very good, at times close to brilliant: a darkly detailed marvel of creative visualization that does well by Dickens and right by audiences - when it’s not trying to sell them a theme park ride. This “Carol’’ isn’t for young children (they’ll be bored and then terrified). The filmmakers still don’t have the eyes right. But rarely has the potential for a new method of moviemaking been so convincingly, even breathtakingly displayed.

Early on, there’s a set piece shot (or “shot,’’ since no actual cameras were used) in which Zemeckis shows exactly what the form can do. Scrooge has stepped from indoors into the frigid streets and our point of view lifts into the air and high above a London swathed in a sunny snow-shower, then down into an alley where a dog steals a shank bone from starving urchins, back above to course over the rooftops, swooping through a bustling marketplace before settling once more upon the storklike antihero disappearing into his place of business.

The shadows and architectural details are painterly, the use of 3-D is intelligent rather than aggressive. Only the extras have a mannequin stiffness, even as Scrooge himself is rendered down to the last wattle and mole. The shot’s not dramatically necessary - on one level, Zemeckis and his gnomes at ImageMovers Digital are just showing off - and yet it is, since it hints at the vast emotional and temporal spaces through which Scrooge will soon soar.

And Carrey? Thankfully, he dials it down without phoning it in, giving a solid character performance that avoids Grinch-y grandstanding in both voice and body movement. (Only at the very end, after Scrooge has had his change of heart, do we get a bit of the old alrighty-then.) The script sticks so closely to the Victorian speech patterns of Dickens’s original that it may prove a challenge to audiences used to today’s dumbed-down dialogue, but Carrey bites into the cadences with relish. Imagine: a blockbuster where you have to pay attention to what’s being said.

“A Christmas Carol’’ eerily adapts its cast’s familiar features to their characters while lightly fictionalizing them: The effect is somewhere between makeup and Photoshop. Scrooge is a crabbed stick figure with Carrey’s bone structure under a different face. Likewise, Bob Cratchit looks like Gary Oldman’s malnourished ancestor and Scrooge’s ebullient nephew Fred is Colin Firth with ruddier cheeks and sensibilities. When the Ghost of Christmas Past - an elfin candle-creature - brings Scrooge back to his youth, we’re startled to meet a Fezziwig with the brio and bounce of Bob Hoskins and a Belle who’s a more generic version of Robin Wright Penn.

Not all of this works. Try as they may, the gnomes continue to have trouble investing eyes with genuine soul. Scrooge’s amber peepers seem almost completely natural, but Bob Cratchit and others look as cross-eyed as Tom Hanks in “The Polar Express.’’ The less important the characters, the less detail has gone into them, which at times leaves us in a world of Dickensian clones. There’s something almost metaphysical about this inability to go the final step in creating believable digital humans onscreen. If Zemeckis gets it right someday, will he become God?

I doubt it - “A Christmas Carol’’ isn’t that good. When the film departs from its source and plays to the audience, as in a noisy and tedious chase scene involving a spectral hearse, or a bizarre sequence in which Scrooge shrinks down to the size of a chipmunk, or when the jaw of Marley’s ghost pops gruesomely loose, it becomes merely the latest Hollywood gewgaw begging for our attention. The further the movie strays from Dickens, the more pandering it seems; the closer it sticks (as in a harrowing vision of two feral children named Ignorance and Want hiding under the Ghost of Christmas Present’s robes), the sharper it cuts.

Still, Zemeckis succeeds in making this much-told story seem almost as fresh as when it came out in 1843 and revived both the author’s career and the yuletide tradition itself. As awkward as it can be, “A Christmas Carol’’ finally lets us see what its director sees in the technology that obsesses him. You feel like you’re witnessing the ghost of cinema’s past and getting alluring, unnerving glimpses of movies yet to come.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Written by: Zemeckis, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Starring: The voices and digitally mutated likenesses of Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, IMAX theaters in Natick and Reading

Running time: 96 minutes

Rated: PG (scary sequences and images)

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