Movie review: ‘Christmas Carol’ has no spirit

Ed Symkus

Wow! We’ve already got a big Christmas turkey, and it’s not even close to Thanksgiving. Filmmaker Bob Zemeckis always has been one to turn to for something new and different. He gave us, among others, the inventive “Back to the Future” trilogy, the darkly funny “Death Becomes Her,” and the great “Forrest Gump.” But something went out of whack when he adapted and directed the children’s book, “The Polar Express.”

Experimenting with the motion-capture process – in which performers act out roles and are then computerized – he gave us creepy looking characters with dead eyes, and was so concerned with the admittedly startling look of the film, he forgot to emphasize the story. Same thing happened with his epic monster movie follow-up, “Beowulf,” though the action was so fierce and entertaining, most viewers didn’t realize they were confused.

Now he’s gone the unnecessary route of creating yet another “A Christmas Carol,” a film that, if you include the 1962 Mister Magoo version, has been produced theatrically or on TV about 60 times.

But Zemeckis really roasts this chestnut. Oh, he gets the story right. Nasty, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge learns all about the spirit of Christmas after he’s visited first by the miserable ghost of his former nasty partner, Jacob Marley, and then in turn by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The Zemeckis script actually stays close to the Dickens source material.

But there’s the onslaught of visual gimmickry to deal with. In fact, things start off quite well. Introductory shots of Old London, as seen from above while gliding over the rooftops, are thrilling. Extreme close-ups of Scrooge’s craggy face are a marvel to see.

In short order, the film is loaded up with visual gewgaws and explorations in perspective and wild action. So much so that the message of the story – at least for young viewers who may be experiencing it for the first time – is going to get lost. There’s literally too much going on, and no breathing space to take it all in.

Surprisingly, Jim Carrey, who plays Scrooge at five different ages, as well as all three ghosts, goes at it on an even keel, successfully bridging Scrooge’s character arc and even providing him with a sympathetic edge in some of the flashbacks. Only his Ghost of Christmas present, whose dialogue is mostly made up of loud, ghastly, repetitive laughter, is too far overboard.

Others in the cast don’t get to do much. Scrooge’s assistant at his lending office, the inexplicably dwarf-like Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman), walks around wearing a helpless smile, even though he should have quit his miserable job long ago. Belle (Robin Wright Penn) and Mr. Fezziwig (Bob Hoskins) have so little screen time, they might as well not be in the film.

But a bigger problem goes back to the young viewers, for whom, one would assume, this film was made. It’s not just that they won’t get the gist of the story, it’s that, if they’re 5 or younger, and of normal maturity, they’re going to get the Dickens scared out of them. Marley’s ghost is a hideous, floating, groaning creation. The sight of a team of stampeding black horses with fiery red eyes trying to run down a shrunken Scrooge is outright terrifying.

And then there’s the adult audience. We’ve all seen or read this story. We know what’s coming. And beyond a few pops from 3-D effects, Zemeckis gives us nothing new. Despite some excitement, the film slogs on, feeling a lot longer than its 96 minutes. Watching it is like drinking too much egg nog ... that hasn’t been spiked.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Rated PG for scary sequences and images) Cast includes  Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins. Written and directed by Robert Zemeckis. 1 star out of 4.