Director Robert Zemeckis brings his obsession with motion capture animation technology to Charles Dickens' beloved holiday classic “A Christmas Carol,” a story that strikes such a resonate cord that even if you've heard it a 100 times it still as the power to move.
I have yet to be convinced by motion capture, at least as employed by Zemeckis. Motion capture uses special censors that allow computers to animate over an actor's performance so not only are they providing the voice to their animated counterpart, but the movements as well.
When this is employed as a tool in a live action film it can be quite effective. The technique was used by Peter Jackson to create Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” and Kong in “King Kong.” Earlier this year, Zack Synder used it to transform Billy Crudup into Dr. Manhattan in “Watchmen.”
This is Zemeckis' third film using the technique following “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf.” As was true with those films, the way in which Zemeckis chooses to animate his actors leaves them looking like dead-eyed wax figures that look realistic and fake at the same time.
Thankfully, unlike in “Beowulf,” the actors have not been animated so they look almost exactly like they do in real life. In “Beowulf” it was easy to spot the likes of Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins, which defeated the purpose of animating them in the first place.
Zemeckis does create a fabulous animated world for the actors to inhabit. In the title sequence he sends the audience on a fantastic aerial tour of 19th century London from the roof tops to the bustling city streets. He makes London just as much a character in the film as Ebenezer Scrooge.
Jim Carrey stars as the crotchety miser Scrooge as well as the three spirits who visit and tell him to get his act straight or face a rather dismal after life. Carrey makes a surprisingly good Scrooge. He dials down his more over-the-top tendencies and creates a Scrooge that is truly menacing. When Scrooge changes his ways, Carrey brings such joy to the performance that it is hard to not be taken up in the moment.
Carrey is such a physical actor with such an expressive face that he even manages to over come that dead-eyed effect. The emotion that Carrey is giving to Scrooge comes shining through the layers of computer generated animation.
As with Carrey, Gary Oldman plays multiple roles appearing as Jacob Marley, Bob Crotchit and Tiny Tim. Other familiar voices include Robin Wright Penn as Scrooge's love interest Belle, Bob Hoskins as Scrooge's former employee Fezziwig and Colin Firth as Scrooge's nephew Fred.
Zemeckis, who also wrote the script, does a faithful adaptation of Dickens' story that plays up the ghost story aspect. There are some genuinely frightening bits in this version especially the death of the Ghost of Christmas Present.
There is one sequence that feels glaringly out of tone and place with the rest of material. In the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come sequence, Zemeckis stages an elaborate chase involving a miniaturized Scrooge. The sequence was clearly added so there could be a big action scene to best utilize the 3D that is available in some theaters.
In general, Zemeckis seems to favor showcasing his swooping 3D animation with the ghosts fly Scrooge all over London, which is admittedly is thrilling to watch. Unfortunately, he short-sheets some of the stories more human scenes simply to have Scrooge whisked away for another flight.
Very little time is spent establishing any sort of emotional connection between Scrooge and Belle, the Fezziwig party feels far too brief and the conclude scenes are rushed. This is all shame because the film is the most effective when it slows down and allows for the quiet moments. Even in their abbreviated state the concluding scenes are some of the best in any “Christmas Carol” adaptation.