- The Washington Times - Friday, November 6, 2009

It’s hard to think of a book adapted to film more often than Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” It’s been done a hundred times a hundred different ways, yet versions keep spilling forth from Hollywood.

Every child knows the story of Ebenezer Scrooge: A skinflint who hates Christmas and treats his loved ones and employees shabbily, the miser is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, who teach him the true meaning of the holiday.

The story has been told in countless variations: from serious to farcical; from real life to animated; from classically acted to acted out with Muppets. Robert Zemeckis seeks to answer the one question still remaining about the Dickens classic: What would the movie look like if it were cast with figures from Madame Tussauds?

The style of animation used in this film is the same motion-capture technology used by Mr. Zemeckis in his last two movies, “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf.” The technique has improved over the years, but only slightly; the characters still look like waxwork dummies, moving with a weightlessness that, simply put, doesn’t look real. Their faces move stiffly, too, as if the actors have suffered a massive Botox accident. This is to say nothing of the dead eyes that occupy the animated ocular cavities.

These complaints are, perhaps, a trifle unfair. After all, without the technique, it would have been almost impossible for Jim Carrey to play the roles of Scrooge (at all ages) as well as all the spirits of Christmas past, present and future — the computer-generated character designs for his personae are intriguing (if, again, slightly plastic). Also, the motion-capture process eases integration of the actors with the digitally created backdrops, making the high-intensity action sequences that dot “A Christmas Carol” more impressive.

But who goes to see “A Christmas Carol” for action sequences and character design? And what is added by Mr. Carrey playing all of those different roles?

The new version hits theaters in 3-D and 2-D formats, and the 3-D effect is relatively impressive, as far as it goes: seamlessly processed, not too distracting or in the face of the viewer. Again, though, one must ask whether it adds anything to the 166-year-old tale or is simply a showy display of technological virtuosity for its own sake.

Watching this picture, one can’t help but pine for the Mr. Zemeckis of old, the Spielberg protege who directed the “Back to the Future” series and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and won an Oscar for “Forrest Gump.” Perhaps it’s time for the ghosts of cinema past, present and future to pay him a visit to impart the lesson that brilliant original stories matter far more to audiences than special effects.

★★
TITLE: “A Christmas Carol”
RATING: PG (scary sequences and images)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Robert Zemeckis
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes
WEB SITE: http://disney.go.com/disneypictures/achristmascarol/
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS