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Jim Carrey wows in visually enchanting 'Christmas Carol'

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Posted: Friday, November 13, 2009 12:00 am

Coming on the heels of an awesome October, this month's wide releases are looking a little weak.

Next week we've got "Pirate Radio" and this week "2012" (I'm gonna have to go with my gut and skip the latter, although people seem to be excited about it — takes all kinds, I suppose…), followed by a week in which general audiences will be asked to choose from "The Blind Side" (think "Radio," but with Sandra Bullock), "Planet 51" (because what we need right now is yet another slapdash 3-D family film) and "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" (no further comments necessary).

Given that we're in the middle of November, which is supposed to be the time of serious adult fare and studio prestige pictures, I think that such a roster should inspire violent revolution in the hearts of cinephiles everywhere.

But I digress, for now, so let's move onward and upward with a look at — you guessed it — another 3-D family flick.

This one is hardly slapdash, though, and in fact may represent one of the most significant developments yet in the field of motion-capture animation — and it's guaranteed to get you in that great, jolly holiday spirit. Unless, you're a young child, in which case it may simply terrify you beyond belief. Either way, it's pretty cool.

Between his adaptations of "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf," Robert Zemeckis (the technology-driven filmmaker behind such visually sophisticated films as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and "Forrest Gump") has enthusiastically led the push behind motion-capture animation.

As the name implies, it's a process that allows animators to capture the movements of actors and apply those movements to a digital model, and Zemeckis isn't entirely off-base when he claims that this technology will gain in popularity and change moviemaking forever.

It's an amazing process rife with further potential, but the fact remains that there are still some kinks to be worked out.

But it will, no doubt, eventually be perfected, and "Disney's A Christmas Carol" goes to show how much further we've already come in the past couple years. The film is a visual marvel, filled with the kinds of movements and textures I never thought would be possible in a CGI film.

The landscapes are nothing short of eye-popping, and I'm prepared to make the bold claim that no other Christmas movie has so eloquently captured the rhythms and vibes of Victorian England.

"Disney's A Christmas Carol"

*** 1/2 (out of four)
2009, Robert Zemeckis U.S., PG

It's too bad there's still something missing in the human element of all this: While the characters populating these detailed, lovingly rendered landscapes and interiors don't look "bad," there's definitely something funky going on with the eyes.

They're lifeless eyes. Black eyes like a doll's eyes. It's a relatively minor kink, sure — and much improved in the five years since the epic failure of the freaky-deaky "The Polar Express" — but I can't tell you how unnerving it is to be immersed in such a meticulously crafted world, only to be jolted out of your serenity by the penetrating stare of Colin Firth's cold, judgmental eyes.

But enough about technology; how does the film fare overall as an adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic? Pretty darn good, actually.

It's quite faithful in tone (even if the pacing sometimes seems a bit rushed to accommodate a couple brief action sequences, the last and most elaborate of which feels tremendously out of place in a Dickens tale), and even at just over 90 minutes, writer/director Zemeckis is able to cover the bulk of the story without sacrificing many details.

However, parents of young children should note that Zemeckis' vision is much darker and often more frightening than other versions of "A Christmas Carol" — and that darkness isn't confined to the Ghost of Christmas Future sequence.

Throughout the film Zemeckis isn't afraid to showcase 19th century England in all its cruel glory, and while things never get out of hand, the (relatively) realistic portrayal of the era combined with the scary ghost stuff makes this one a gamble if your child is easily upset or frightened (by, for instance, the image of a starving infant and mother, or the Ghost of Christmas Present violently decaying into a laughing skeleton).

There are certainly many provocative aspects of Zemeckis' production, but the biggest surprise — and, indeed, the best reason to see the movie — is Jim Carrey's performance as not only Ebenezer Scrooge, but the three ghosts as well.

Carrey may not be the very best Scrooge we've seen (I must tip my hat to George C. Scott for that honor — who doesn't love a fat Scrooge who could easily kick your butt?), but taken in its totality, this performance qualifies as a tour-de-force.

There's an implicit playfulness in his work here, especially in his unique characterizations of the first two ghosts. It's nothing overt; just small details (a line here, a glance or twitch there) that eventually add up to a truly special, entirely original performance, free of Carrey's usual tired schtick.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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