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EntertainmentMoviesBlah, humbug! 'A Christmas Carol's 3-D spin on Dickens well done in parts but lacks spirit

Movie Review

Joe Neumaier

Disney's A Christmas Carol in Disney Digital 3D
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Blah, humbug! 'A Christmas Carol's 3-D spin on Dickens well done in parts but lacks spirit

Friday, November 6th 2009, 4:00 AM

Jim Carrey plays Ebenezzer Scrooge as well as 2 of 3 ghosts in Disney's 3-D 'A Christmas Carol.'
Jim Carrey plays Ebenezzer Scrooge as well as 2 of 3 ghosts in Disney's 3-D 'A Christmas Carol.'
3-D animated version of the holiday story. With Jim Carrey. Director: Robert Zemeckis (1:36). PG: Ghostly scares. At area theaters.

If you're going to make another version of the iconic, 166-year-old "A Christmas Carol," there needs to be a hook.

Unfortunately, the latest version of Charles Dickens' 1843 novella, from Disney and director Robert Zemeckis, has a weak one: the casting of Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge as well as two of the three ghosts. While Carrey's animated performance as the old miser is serviceable, he wasn't born to play him, and to be frank, audiences weren't exactly clamoring for it. (His growly Grinch was quite enough.) And while Dickens' message isn't lost, this retelling never soars.

That's ironic, since the vivid 3-D ­motion-capture technology that's created Scrooge and company — the format Zemeckis used for 2004's "Polar Express" — allows for flights above Victorian-era London. Those are big set-pieces that somehow never exhilarate. And "mo-cap" comes at a cost: Like a dime-store holiday card, this "Christmas Carol" is well-crafted but artless, detailed but lacking soul.

The plot — if it needs recapping — is simplicity itself: Scrooge, who hates Christmas a lot and people even more, is in need of an otherworldly intervention. On Dec. 24, the ghost of his business partner Jacob Marley warns he'll be visited by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come. The specters arrive on cue and show Scrooge his youth and future, as well as the fate of Tiny Tim, the crippled child of his employee Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman).

As the lead character, Carrey's CG-­created body is spindly and bent, and he has fun with his vocal performance, turning every word into a strangled hiss. He's less successful as Christmas Past — a candle with an irritatingly moony face — and as the burly, bearded Christmas Present, who here looks like the bloated late-era Jim Morrison.

The motion-capture does no favors to co-stars Oldman, ­Colin Firth and Robin Wright Penn, since, as in "Polar Express," the animated eyes never seem to ­focus. And for all the photorealism, when characters get wiggly-limbed and bouncy as in standard Disney cartoons, it's off-putting.

To his credit, Zemeckis — who should get in touch with his inner adult for a change, the one who made "Cast Away" — doesn't entirely dumb down the material: Yes, there's a chase featuring a needlessly miniaturized Scrooge. On the whole, though, he manages to rein Carrey in. When Zemeckis turns the most haunting scene — Scrooge's sighting of the ragged children called Ignorance and Want — into a Tim Burton-esque moment, the effect is startling but tonally consistent.

Scares like that may disturb kids under 7, and that's typical of this, Hollywood's first big-screen "Christmas Carol" of the millennium. It's neither gravy nor grave, as Scrooge might say; creepy, but with a family-friendly star at the center. Though not a humbug, it likely won't be remembered in six years, let alone 166.

jneumaier@nydailynews.com

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