The Family Filmgoer

Family Filmgoer: 'Disney's a Christmas Carol'

Belle (voice of Robin Wright Penn) and young and old Ebenezer Scrooges (Jim Carrey) in "Disney's A Christmas Carol."
Belle (voice of Robin Wright Penn) and young and old Ebenezer Scrooges (Jim Carrey) in "Disney's A Christmas Carol." (Copyright Imagemovers Digital)
By Jane Horwitz
Friday, November 6, 2009

Disney's A Christmas Carol (PG, 96 minutes). It's hard to know what age group this dour, ultra-spooky animated adaptation of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" will appeal to. A showcase for actor Jim Carrey and advances in a particular type of computer animation, it seems too frightening and humorless for kids younger than 10. Director/screenwriter Robert Zemeckis uses the same technology that he used in "The Polar Express" (PG, 2004). This time he's added 3-D and dizzying 360-degree perspectives in some action sequences.

The result is a film that feels more like a bizarre experiment than a good holiday yarn. Zemeckis takes the creepier aspects of Dickens's tale and emphasizes them to such a degree that kids younger than 10 may be too unsettled watching it on the big screen.

When we first meet him, Ebenezer Scrooge (voiced by Carrey) is so stooped, gnarled and angry that he looks like an out-of-sorts Abe Lincoln. The head of Marley's ghost (Gary Oldman) appears on Scrooge's door knocker, and all the visitations by spirits are quite harrowing. The depiction of 19th-century London looks more like a setting for a Jack the Ripper tale than a holiday fable.

Even the happier moments are overpowered by the high-tech chills and general dourness of the film. And Scrooge's eventual conversion to a loving keeper of Christmas feels anti-climactic, which it never should.

The ghostly Marley's great message to Scrooge -- "Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business!" -- loses its sting because Marley's jaw comes unhinged and is overplayed. Zemeckis doesn't exactly ruin Dickens's classic story, but he's made a version so obsessed with techno-trickery that it has become too creepy for its intended audience.

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8 and Older

"Astro Boy" (PG). "Astro Boy" is great fun once it gets going -- full of humor, action, vivid characters, and rich in film and literary references parents could expand on later. But the level of mayhem and the theme of parental rejection in this computer-animated sci-fi fable make it more appropriate for kids 8 and older. Young Toby (voice of Freddie Highmore) lives among privileged humans who have fled a trash-filled Earth to futuristic Metro City, floating above the planet. Toby's father, Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), a scientist, works for evil Gen. Stone (Donald Sutherland). When a warrior robot accidentally kills Toby, a heartbroken Tenma creates a robotic Toby but then rejects his artificial "son." Gen. Stone, seeing the robotic Toby is outfitted with weaponry, sends his military to destroy him. Toby escapes to Earth, where he's befriended by orphans. Gen. Stone sends forces after Toby -- now Astro Boy. The fighting includes guns and much destruction.

10 and Older

"Michael Jackson's This Is It" (PG). Michael Jackson fans and anyone 10 and older interested in how great performers work will be more than satisfied with this posthumous tribute -- put together by director Kenny Ortega after Jackson's death. Ortega had hours of footage from rehearsing with Jackson for what was to be a series of sold-out "This Is It" comeback concerts in London. Jackson is preserving his voice a bit, but even so, the film is rich with him singing and dancing his many hits -- more than enough to remind people of why he was such a pop icon. The odder aspects of his personality are not on display much. He comes across as a perfectionist and a hardworking pro. The dancers, including Jackson, do a lot of his trademark 1980s crotch-grabbing, and there's some joking about that. A few other dance moves are mildly suggestive, too. Children may be startled by fireworks and flame effects.

"Where the Wild Things Are" (PG). Some parents may decide that this unusual adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved 1963 picture book is too intense to be a family film, but they'll be surprised at how easily kids 10 and older (and many who are younger) will get director Spike Jonze's unique take. Max (terrific Max Records) has a fight with his mom (Catherine Keener) and runs away. Realism becomes fantasy as he sails through a storm and lands on an island where he becomes pals with the Wild Things. The friendships start as bumptious fun but degenerate into arguments and sadness. This film is not for kids who have short attention spans, who find strongly portrayed emotions hard to deal with, or who could be scared by the idea of stuffed animals becoming huge and alive. The Wild Things fight one another and say mean things.


"The Fourth Kind." Bunk and hooey are words that come to mind with this barely scary sci-fi thriller about a psychologist who believes her insomniac patients are victims of alien abduction. Milla Jovovich as the psychologist lacks the acting chops to carry off her complex role as therapist, widow, mother and reluctant believer in aliens. With a weak lead and a poorly conjured premise, the film never grabs its audience. There are themes about suicide and about children missing their dead father. A distraught man kills his family, then himself. Children are snatched by alien forces. There are flashbacks to a violent murder and occasional mild profanity. Too intense for middle-schoolers.


"The Men Who Stare at Goats." Highly amusing, deeply ironic and terrifically acted, this tale about the American military, while a mild R, is likely to leave high-schoolers cold. "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is a fact-based satire and geared to folks who know more about the Vietnam War and the 1960s. The movie spoofs actual military research into nonviolent psychological and paranormal warfare. Ewan McGregor plays Bob, our narrator, a young journalist who goes to the Middle East in hopes of covering the Iraq war. In Kuwait he meets Lyn (George Clooney), a quirky vet. The film includes a battle flashback showing a pile of bodies, implied torture of Iraqi prisoners, implied harm to animals, a suicide theme, gunplay, drug use, drinking, profanity and backview nudity. Okay for high-schoolers, but more likely to amuse adults.

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