You cannot ruin the essence of "A Christmas Carol." The example of a man who learns that wealth is not happiness, but happiness is wealth, is surely eternal.
It's been Muppet-ified, musicalized and Bill Murray-ed with great success. And yet it's possible to wrap Charles Dickens' entrancing story in layers of humbug that diminish it.
The odious Matthew McConaughey romcom "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" made viewers hold their heads and moan like Jacob Marley. Still, the resilient tale survived. Better than that, but not as good as the source material deserves, is Disney's "A Christmas Carol."
This is a holiday offering whose gaudy 3D packaging matters more than the old relic inside. Director Robert Zemeckis (the "Back to the Future" films, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit") favors thrill-ride effects that are more often the star than the servant of the story. It's like "Silent Night" played by Led Zeppelin.
In this Christmas fable Scrooge zooms airborne across Victorian London like a cruise missile, does skateboard-style slides along an icy rooftop, and spends more time falling through the stratosphere than a champion skydiver. He's shrunk to the size of a mouse and menaced by runaway carriage horses. If there was a way to work a flying DeLorean into the story, I'm sure Zemeckis would have leapt at it.
It's not all razzle-dazzle, however. The film uses 3D subtly, to add depth of field to the action rather than to jab pokers in your eye, and its most effective sections are rather somber. The palette is largely black and gray, setting the tone for Scrooge's world, a place drained of joy.
Color arrives with the ghosts of Christmas Past (an unearthly beacon of living flame) and Present (a chuckling giant in robes of red, white and green). When they convey Scrooge to the festivities at Fezziwig's ball and his nephew Fred's Christmas party, he literally begins to see the light. When darkness reasserts itself in the fearsome form of Christmas Yet to Come, Scrooge is put into the only high-wire set piece that underscores the themes of the story, a graveyard cliffhanger where the old miser dangles over a mineshaft to the inferno.
Frequently, though, Zemeckis distrusts the story, pushing vertigo-inducing effects that trump substance. Given a choice between Dickens' rich prose and theme park razzle-dazzle, he goes for spectacle every time.
The vocal performances are fine. Jim Carrey makes a delightful Scrooge, less the villain of the story than its misguided fool, and his three Christmas ghosts are vividly realized. Bob Hoskins radiates hearty good cheer as kindly Mr. Fezziwig, though he sounds vocally identical as a greedy tradesman come to loot Scrooge's bedchamber. Colin Firth and Gary Oldman are better than fine as Fred and Bob Cratchit.
But every voice is more distinguished than the motion-captured avatars representing the characters. While they're better than the dead-eyed zombies of Zemeckis' earlier computer-film experiments "Polar Express" and "Beowulf," they're still in the range of Disneyland androids. Why do we need these blurry photocopies of real actors? Have you ever seen a film with Oldman or Hoskins or Firth and thought "I'd really rather see a computer simulation"? (Leave Carrey out of this; he's a human cartoon anyway.)
These digital humanoids are less convincing than a man in a creature suit was when playing the unearthly Faun in "Pan's Labyrinth." Watching this film is like watching an animated diorama in a department store window. And for that you don't need 3D glasses.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186