Shortchanging traditional animation by literalizing it while robbing actors of their full range of facial expressiveness, the performance-capture technique favored by director Robert Zemeckis looks more than ever like the emperor’s new clothes in “Disney’s A Christmas Carol.” Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella and screen perennial has been retrofitted here as a so-called thrill ride in which Scrooge zooms above the streets of London and rockets halfway to the moon and back, only because now he technologically can. But while curmudgeons, here qualifying as anyone who might prefer earlier versions of the classic tale, will frown, bright-eyed young’uns will ooh and aah from behind their 3D glasses, resulting in bountiful early holiday B.O. tidings for the company that has now incorporated itself into Dickens’ title.
Making his third consecutive feature in the hybrid format, after “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf,” Zemeckis seems almost stubbornly committed to the process. In regard to “A Christmas Carol,” the director has made the point that the tale’s spectral manifestations and time-traveling nature (it was purportedly the first fictional work to shuttle both backward and forward in time) are ideally suited to being rendered in the latest high-tech fashion.
But while it’s true that the various ghosts and geographically plausible aerial images of the British metropolis in mid-19th-century are arrestingly vivid, there isn’t a moment when it wouldn’t be preferable to see Jim Carrey himself, even slathered in old-age makeup, as well as the real Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins and the rest of the cast, rather than their airbrushed CGI approximations. Even as their vocal performances remain intact, the elaborate technique drains the actors of their emotional warmth and expressive nuance, rendering every moment obvious and uninteresting from a thesping p.o.v.
So tidy are the snow-dusted holiday neighborhoods of industrial-age England here that the only malign element on view is the parsimonious personality of Ebenezer Scrooge (Carrey), who early on is seen pocketing the very coins covering the closed eyes of his late business partner, Marley, on the undertaker’s slab.
Much of the general plot is familiar: Scrooge begrudges his ever-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit (Oldman) Christmas Day off, and is so antisocial he refuses a Christmas dinner invitation from his nephew Fred (Colin Firth). The stingy old accountant is surprised by three ghosts who separately present him with emotionally telling snapshots from his own life — past, present and future — which fill the grumpy old grouch with regret, fear and an overwhelming sense of the error of his ways. An excellent moral and an excellent Christmas tale, which is why it has never faded from sight through the generations.
But then, as with “Romeo and Juliet” and other imperishables, perhaps every generation gets the “Christmas Carol” it deserves: The postwar British feature, starring Alastair Sim, was no doubt the best; next came a bloated, musicalized post-“Oliver!” version; then, in the ’80s, Bill Murray starred in a hipster “SNL”-era modernization. In this context, it makes a certain sense that the early 21st-century edition is dominated or, more accurately, dictated by technology; there’s no other impulse running through it other than the desire to create shots and pull off effects that would have been impossible, or at least prohibitively expensive, prior to the invention of CGI, the performance-capture technique and the rebirth of 3D.
To capitalize upon the latter, Zemeckis favors placing objects such as hands or chains in the extreme foreground so as to create a 3D deep-focus effect. He’s also developed many scenes with an eye to moving the camera constantly in relation to the characters and settings, keeping editing to a minimum. But given the overall animated patina, this doesn’t create anywhere near the beauty or excitement that similar moves would in live-action cinematography. Also, the diminishment in image brightness by at least 20% when the 3D glasses are put on is quite noticeable.
For some, the dramatically pointy nose and even more pronounced chin added to Carrey’s face would be 3D effect enough for any movie. In fact, Carrey’s readings are entirely persuasive, and the animated stick-like body given him would make Peter O’Toole resemble John Goodman by comparison. For fun, if not for any urgent artistic reasons, Carrey also gives voice to the three ghosts, while supports Oldman, Hoskins and Cary Elwes similarly do multiple character duty. The animated faces given Oldman, Firth and Robin Wright Penn, the latter as Scrooge’s youthful love, are particularly bland and featureless, neutering them as performers.