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Review: 'Christmas Carol' OK, but tech adds little

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
Jim Carrey is Ebenezer Scrooge, and several others, in "Disney's A Christmas Carol."
Jim Carrey is Ebenezer Scrooge, and several others, in "Disney's A Christmas Carol."
  • New "Christmas Carol" sticks with the story pretty closely
  • Jim Carrey plays Scrooge and the various ghosts
  • Director Robert Zemeckis chose to use motion capture technology
  • CNN's Tom Charity says technology adds little; why not just use the actors?

(CNN) -- Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year, doesn't it?

Even so, November 6 is an absurdly premature release date for the latest Hollywoodization of Charles Dickens' yuletide staple, "A Christmas Carol." Blame "Avatar," which has a lock on every last IMAX screen when it releases December 18.

But why should Disney be running scared of a sci-fi extravaganza? Presumably because they reckon the selling point here isn't so much the umpteenth retelling of Dickens' spread-the-wealth fable as it is the pretty bells and whistles with which director Robert Zemeckis has decked it out.

Zemeckis is still plugging away at the 3-D motion-capture animation techniques he applied to "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf," something many viewers will find a mixed blessing.

Motion capture is versatile and kinetic: It liberates Zemeckis to fly over the rooftops of 19th-century London and then scoot through them. But it still renders the human face as a glassy-eyed waxwork mask. It's the perfect format for a zombie movie.

Video: Jim Carrey stars as 'Scrooge'
  • Jim Carrey
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  • Charles Dickens

Why Zemeckis would prefer creepy doll-like simulations of Gary Oldman (Bob Cratchit), Colin Firth (Fred) and Robin Wright Penn (Belle) -- not to mention star Jim Carrey (Scrooge and others) -- to the real things is a head-scratcher. If it allows Carrey to voice Scrooge at five different ages, as well as to impersonate the ghosts of Christmas past and present, well, our ears may be impressed. But I'd rather see him do it in the flesh, wouldn't you?

(Carrey is also credited as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, even though this spook doesn't speak. One imagines his performance consisted of draping a sheet over his head and pointing this way and that, like a traffic cop when the lights have gone out.)

Carrey's Scrooge is a stooped, malnourished grouch with a permanent frown and a schnozzle that balloons as he ages. There's a faint echo of Alastair Sim's definitive performance in the 1953 film version, but this Ebenezer is more at risk from whiplash than his illustrious forebears: One ghost rockets him up into the stratosphere; another chases him through a London pea-souper with such ferocity that the terrified Scrooge shrinks to the size of a dormouse. The deceased Jacob Marley comes on like an angry cage fighter.

Despite these value-added bonus features for the amusement park crowd, for the most part, Zemeckis has taken an Illustrated Classics approach to this well-thumbed story. He doesn't even tinker with Tiny Tim.

There are nice touches dotted about like the first snowflakes of the season: Scrooge stealing back the pennies that cover the dead Marley's eyes, for instance.

Not surprisingly, the supernatural stuff is a much better fit with the technique. The Ghost of Christmas Past is whimsically imagined as a candle with a head that flickers unsteadily on his neck in the draft, and the Ghost of Christmas Present expires with a grand expressionist flourish beneath the shadow of a striking clock.

Is this destined to become the classic Scrooge for the 21st century, supplanting Sim, George C. Scott, Michael Caine, Bill Murray and all? Only the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come could tell us that, but for sure it has the trappings of a gaudy Christmas present -- even if sometimes it's a bit hollow.

"Disney's A Christmas Carol" is rated PG and runs 96 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's review, click here.