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With Dickens film, Santa brings bad presents early

POSTED: November 4, 2009 11:30 p.m.
/Disney

Ebenezer Scrooge, voiced by Jim Carrey, comes to life in Robert Zemeckis' "Disney's A Christmas Carol."

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Happy birthday, Jesus. Hope you like nightmares.

Director Robert Zemeckis’ latest foray into motion-capture animation is being billed as "Disney’s A Christmas Carol," but don’t let the prominent Disney brand name fool you. This is not Mickey or the princesses.

His retelling of the Charles Dickens classic is as scary as any animated movie the Mouse House has ever produced.

Zemeckis has fallen in love with the motion-capture technique, which hasn’t always been a good thing. He first used the technique, with decent results, in "Polar Express," then again to much worse effect in "Beowulf." Now he animates the most trod-upon tale of the holidays.

The animation in "Carol" is undeniably stunning. The settings are even more beautiful than those in "Polar Express," and the character movement is hugely improved. This might be the most technically impressive motion-capture animation to date.

The film begins with a dazzling shot that flies over London as freely as a bird. We soar at dizzying speed over the city’s rooftops, then dive to street level for a glimpse of Londoners’ lives. Later, the Ghost of Christmas Present transforms Scrooge’s bedroom into a sort of flying carpet on which they zoom from one location to the next.

I have always questioned the use of motion-capture animation to recreate the human face and body — why not just use live actors? This time, though, the motion-capture seems justified since several of the visual effects would be impossible in a live action movie.

So do I recommend it? I recommend that you ask yourself a few questions to decide.

First, do you want to see yet another version of "A Christmas Carol"? Because this movie does nothing inventive with the story, other than tell it in a unique style of animation.

Second, are you in the mood for a ghost story? When you get down to it, "Carol" is like a holiday version of "Scared Straight!" Scrooge is subjected to two acts’ worth of torment, which frightens him into reforming his humbug ways. Which in this case translates into 86 minutes of ghastly horror movie and a mere 10 minutes of reformed holiday cheer.

That’s mostly how Dickens intended it, but he also told the story with warm-hearted humor.

Zemeckis’ movie effectively scares the bejesus into Scrooge and us, but it lacks the joy and warmth of Dickens’ ghost story.

Even though Scrooge eventually experiences his big epiphany, it doesn’t feel like it. Zemeckis doesn’t make our hearts grow three sizes. Or give us a moving monologue about the true meaning of Christmas. Or inject us with hilarious irony by shooting out someone’s eye with a much-coveted BB gun. Heck, he doesn’t even raise us to the heights we feel when Rudolph leads Santa’s sleigh to the island of misfit toys.

This movie pummels us with the darkest imagery possible and sets us up for a huge payoff that never happens.

Which brings us to whether the movie is appropriate for your kids. Ask yourself this: Are your children mature enough to read Dickens’ entire, unabridged book themselves? If your own Tiny Tim or Tina can read and understand the original tale on their own, then they’ll probably enjoy this movie.

If the kids are too young to read the book, they likely are too young for this movie, which contains certain sequences that are every bit as frightening as a PG-13 horror movie. That’s something with which I have a big problem.

Yes, Dickens reforms his Scrooge through fear, but his fears are wrought by the consequences of his actions. At least eight times by my count, this 3D movie has some demonic-looking ghost lunge unexpectedly at us solely to make us jump out of our seats. It’s the kind of thing bad horror movies do.

All of these "gotcha" scares are completely unnecessary, not inspired by the story, and definitely not designed to celebrate the spirit of Christmas.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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