Too much spirit, too little heart
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Nov. 6, 2009
"Disney's A Christmas Carol" is a tall glass of Dickens with a "Beetlejuice" chaser.
The umpteenth iteration of the holiday classic -- about the miserly, miserable Ebenezer Scrooge and his Christmas Eve redemption at the hands of a trio of ghosts -- gets a manic makeover under the direction of Robert Zemeckis, who applies the same motion-capture animation he used to mixed effect in "The Polar Express" to create a fable that is by turns antic, scary, sweet and, in the end, slightly soulless.
In other words, it's a heartwarmer that doesn't have much of a heart itself.
Mostly that's the fault of the animation, which renders everything and everyone in lavish (if somewhat cartoonish) detail, yet misses that ineffable quality that makes a cartoon character human. It's populated by figures that are halfway between Wii Fit avatars and real people.
This, despite the Herculean efforts of the voice cast, which includes Jim Carrey as Scrooge and the ghosts that visit him, and Gary Oldman as Scrooge's dead partner Jacob Marley, Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit and Cratchit's son Tiny Tim. That the film takes advantage of the latest 3-D technology isn't entirely a bad thing either. The supernatural tale lends itself nicely to the eye-popping special effects, in which Scrooge zooms all over England -- and jumps the bounds of the space-time continuum -- visiting not only his own happy past and wretched future, but corners of the present day about which he has no clue.
In fact, the film is at its best when Scrooge, guided by a jolly, red-bearded Ghost of Christmas Present, makes the floor of Scrooge's house disappear. The two of them then fly hither and yon, peering down into the impoverished dining room of the Cratchit family, for instance, where the stoic Tiny Tim feels the trickle-down effects of his father's meager wages (not to mention Victorian-era health care). Just as Scrooge gets a taste of how the other half lives, you'll feel like you're in some high-tech glass-bottomed boat. And you will get verklempt when Tim raises his cup to say "God bless us . . . every one."
Not so great is the sequence with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Traditionally, he's the most starkly terrifying of the ghosts, and that's no exception here. Decked out like the Grim Reaper, he'll scare the pants off most younger kids, even as a protracted chase sequence -- in which a hearse pulled by red-eyed hell horses pursues an inexplicably Barbie-doll-size Scrooge through the streets and plumbing of London -- will bore parents to tears. Just because something can be done with computers doesn't mean it should be.
Make no mistake. Dickens's story has good bones. And its lesson -- that it's never too late to make a difference in someone else's life -- more than carries the day.
Despite the Disney imprimatur, though, parents should think twice about whether to take the very youngest, or the most impressionable, to this version of "A Christmas Carol," which is far and away the creepiest I've ever seen. When Scrooge is visited by the specter of his late partner Marley, the ghost's jaw becomes hideously dislocated and his face splits open. Older kids will laugh. My 10-year-old couldn't get to sleep.
Weirder still is the irony that this story -- which is all about the importance of the simple things in life, and giving, not getting -- is so overwhelmed by what are essentially video-game features. In fact, look for it in stores now, on the Nintendo DS system.
At area theaters. Contains creepiness.