A digital Scrooge scowls through a digital London in Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol, a new attempt to warm up Charles Dickens’ holiday chestnut using state-of-the-art technology. But the results feel like the product of a microwave instead of an open fire. A skilled director long infatuated with technological breakthroughs, Zemeckis here makes his third excursion into the animation-meets-live-action world of performance capture. Zemeckis has described the process as offering the “best of both worlds,” but in A Christmas Carol, it feels neither here nor there, never multiplying the warmth of human performances by the artistic freedoms of animation. It doesn’t dip as far into the uncanny valley as The Polar Express—in which a train filled with zombie kids visited a dead-eyed Santa—nor does it offer much equivalent to Beowulf’s paperback-covers-come-to-life thrills. The holiday spirit feels real, but the film does not.
As has to be expected from a director with Zemeckis’ filmography, A Christmas Carol does have its share of memorable images. Among them: a terrified Scrooge inching forward with only a candle as his guide, a Victorian London realized in detail, right down to the rats, and some not-so-comforting ghosts. But the story is so familiar, and apart from a couple of obligatory action setpieces, Zemeckis renders it with the condensed dutifulness of a Classics Illustrated adaptation. He never makes the case for 2009 needing yet another new version of the story, much less one starring Jim Carrey as Scrooge and all three Christmas ghosts.
Carrey is more restrained than might be expected as Scrooge, but he never feels like the right man for the job. His interpretations of the Ghost Of Christmas Past and Present as, respectively, a drugged leprechaun and a phantom pirate feel less appropriate. But mostly, he’s just another not-quite-alive element in an ultimately cold, sparkling bauble of a movie. Even Tiny Tim, that venerable argument for universal health care, doesn’t stir much pity. It’s easy to feel sympathy for a real boy or a cartoon boy, but not an in-between creature whose problems look more likely to disappear with a mouse click than with the intervention of benevolent ghosts.