Robert Zemeckis' Very CGI 'A Christmas Carol' Can't Be What Charles Dickens Had In Mind

A Very CGI Christmas
This canNt be what Charles Dickens had in mind

ItNs not hard to see how the director of Forrest Gump would be thought a good fit to adapt the dearly beloved (and much lampooned) Dickens tale that has survived nearly two centuries of retelling if you count the Flintstones, Muppets and Barbie versions. Stuffed with simple souls winning over a stingy misanthrope to the view that life is a box of chocolates even when it manifestly isnNt, A Christmas Carol is nothing if not a meaty yarn. ItNs a lot more besides, but Robert Zemeckis—a cutting-edge animator who hasnNt told a decent story since 1988Ns Who FramedRoger Rabbit?—has a tin ear for DickensN grand moral melodramas, or maybe he just doesnNt care much. What switched him on were the CGI possibilities of Ebenezer ScroogeNs journey back to the future, which Zemeckis has folded into, of all things, a horror story so terrifying that even my hardened 11-year-old clutched my arm in fright. Or was that me clutching hers?

A Christmas Carol is a whiz-bang 3-D thrill ride with all the emotional satisfaction squeezed out of it. For what itNs worth, the movieNs performance-capture digital tricks all but abolish the boundary between live action and animation. That gives Jim Carrey, sunken into a great beak of a nose and a never-ending chin, a chance to show off the full range of his india-rubber body language as he morphs from bent old Scrooge to fresh young Scrooge—in love and not yet warped by want and paternal abuse—and back again to the money-grubbing grinch whoNs so cheap that he stoops to filch the coins placed over the eyes of his dead partner, Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman).

But weNre not permitted to dwell on the old miserNs past life, or his tyranny over poor Bob Cratchit (Oldman again, only ruddy and round), or anything you might connect to with feeling rather than sensation. Zemeckis keeps pulling us away to where the action (and the tween-boy market) is at: Scrooge in his nightdress, hurtling over the rooftops of a beautifully rendered London winter, whose falling snowflakes threaten to drift right up your nostrils, or skiing down icy streets, or tumbling down black holes into the abyss that was, is and might be.

While heNs there, heNs beaten and bruised, dangled and verbally abused for the good of his bitter old soul by Marley, who flings chains in our faces and does Freddie Krueger things with his jaw that you wouldnNt want to see in a PG movie. To say nothing of the ghosts of ScroogeNs life passages, all flagellating the crap out of him, all played by Carrey, and none remotely like DickensN vision of ScroogeNs own conscience: For reasons unknown, Christmas Past is whimsically realized as a cunning little critter with a severed head on fire, while Christmas Present pitches up as a redheaded, manically ho-ho-hoing giant who looks like a cross between Robbie Coltrane and Jesus Christ—at which point the effects team appears to have lost interest, for the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a drug-store Halloween grim reaper in a black sheet with clawed fingers, while all the good-guy characters save one (ScroogeNs kindly former employer Fezziwig, an enchantingly tubby eggcup presence, is delightfully rendered by Bob Hoskins) have to make do with grimy replicas of the Cabbage Patch Kid faces worn by the travelers on ZemeckisNs Polar Express.

When A Christmas Carol isnNt carried away by its own frenzied motion, itNs a ruinously stiff tableau vivant of good folk (Colin Firth, wearing a squashed Colin-Firth-face, phones it in as ScroogeNs honest-to-God nephew), valiantly toasting the Nminence grise in his absence and wringing their hands over the possible demise of Tiny Tim. Granted, the priggish tyke is one of DickensN more cloying creations—had Oscar Wilde not given his bitchy all to chortling over the death of Little Nell, he would undoubtedly have sunk his molars into poor Tim, a saint so blamelessly Forrest Gump-ish that itNs hard to resist the urge to club him with his own crutch.

Many of DickensN characters begin as caricatures, but the best are so deeply felt, so fleshed out and bred in the bone of their creatorNs horrible childhood that they become universalized expressions of our own fears—and our need to be forgiven. Zemeckis milks TimNs pathos for every holy drop, leaving little breathing room for the final chapterNs most powerful parable, in which Scrooge does penance for a life squandered on avarice and acquisition.

On the plus side, Zemeckis avoids screaming parallels to recessionary villains we love to hate. Scrooge is no Bernie Madoff—heNs an early-capitalist accumulator who would have thrown a visiting venture capitalist out on his ear. More to the point, though, heNs a mensch in hiding, deformed by an abusive father and a terror of poverty so profound it blinds him to the insight that you canNt take it with you, that wealth should be shared, that life is best lived with others. ThatNs the message that will make A Christmas Carol live forever as a novel. In ZemeckisN new and far-from-improved version, it comes buried in software.

A Christmas Carol was written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, based on the novel by Charles Dickens; and stars Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Bob Hoskins. Rated PG. Countywide.

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