In spite of the many complaints and criticisms lobbied by viewers of The Polar Express, I liked it, and here again with a growing tide of dissenters, I like A Christmas Carol as well. I say this not to position myself as some sort of maverick, but to acknowledge that there's something about these motion-capture CGI movies that works for me.
Whether it works for you, however, is another matter; but while director Robert Zemeckis' technique is but the most obvious of the obstacles audiences will face when watching the film, A Christmas Carol is a remarkable and effective adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic novel that manages to overcome the familiarity of its source material and become something more fulfilling.
Jim Carrey plays Ebenezer Scrooge, the iconic miser visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve after a life largely bereft of generosity and happiness. The first spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Past (also Carrey), shows him his lonely childhood and the end of his relationship with Belle (Robin Wright Penn). The second, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Carrey again), reveals the feelings of Scrooge's current employee, Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman), and of his nephew Fred (Colin Firth). But the third, the Ghost of Christmas Future, confronts him with the disturbing and inevitable possibility of a dim and lonely end to his life, inspiring him to reconsider his spendthrift and inhospitable ways and invite friends and family into his life before its ends, sadly and unceremoniously.
The Polar Express already felt like Robert Zemeckis' attempt to create a modern-day Christmas Carol, so in a way it's unsurprising that he would eventually adapt the actual story into a similar film. At the same time, however, there's no getting around the fact that Dickens' story has been adapted and updated more than almost any in movie history, which begs the question why now is the right time to do it again, and with this technology. Cynically, it seems like Disney probably wanted a new "definitive" adaptation for their catalog of titles (their previous version was a 1983 animated adaptation starring Scrooge McDuck), and Zemeckis was the obvious choice for director since he could bring a sufficient amount of energy and technical prowess to such an effort.
Unsurprisingly, however, even if that was the reason, Disney was right: While there's certainly a contemporary, kinetic energy Zemeckis brings to the film, he also gives it emotional depth, thanks also to Carrey in the central role. In particular, Zemeckis seems to enjoy trampling the line between kid-friendly and just plain freaky entertainment, and he renders a journey for Scrooge that's extremely intense; the flying sequences, much like the theme-park segments of Polar Express, are dizzyingly exhilarating, especially writ large in 3-D on a massive IMAX screen, and the Ghost of Christmas Future is genuinely terrifying, even for adults. At the same time, he manages to make the character's cathartic transformation rewarding and powerful, at least in the way that we feel compelled to share in his newfound exuberance and generosity, and manages not to succumb to treacle even in a story that is exceedingly susceptible to it.
Carrey clearly relishes the opportunity to play so many different roles in one movie, and he makes the most out of each characterization. That said, my favorite is his flame-headed Ghost of Christmas Past, who impishly flickers and dodges just like a real candle, except with Carrey's complete, hilarious self-awareness at the center of its febrile unpredictability. But the film gains a fascinating momentum as the story proceeds, jumping from one set piece to the next, evolving in its visual and conceptual complexity, and Zemeckis' steady hand is the main force that keeps it from becoming too wild, too weird or just too familiar.
For example, during the "Christmas Present" sequence, the floor of Scrooge's house essentially turns to glass, rising into the air and hovering ominously over the locations where lessons will eventually be imparted; it's comforting and unnerving at the same time, but completely unique visually. And even though Scrooge's transformation into a dormouse-sized fugitive being hunted by Christmas Future and its black mares occasionally veers into unnecessarily volatile action, especially for a Dickens adaptation, the spectral physicality of the ghost is ominous and menacing, but it shapes and steers Scrooge's eventual realization rather than merely being an empty action set piece.
As for folks who still have issues with motion capture and the glazed look in characters' eyes, much of that has long since been resolved, and even though there are certainly some occasionally inauthentic gestures and behavior, the textures and movement are truly better than ever. But ultimately, A Christmas Carol manages to be more than a technical achievement; even if it's not the watershed moment in moviemaking that its predecessor was, it's worthwhile entertainment. Moreover, it's one of the more remarkable adaptations of this particular Dickens work to date, which is why it should win you over whether you think that the story has been sapped of its effectiveness or still has life left in it to explore.