Have you ever wanted to strangle a ghost?
You may well feel the urge after seeing "A Christmas Carol," Robert Zemeckis' exasperating re-imagining of the Dickens classic as a 3-D action-thriller zooming through Victorian London and the fever dreams of that most miserly of men, Ebenezer Scrooge.
The "it's better to give than receive" moral to this story is almost lost under the snowdrifts of special effects. Then there is the blizzard of Jim Carrey's theatrics to weather. The actor voices eight characters, including Scrooge at all ages as well as the three ghosts who haunt him -- you can just see him in the recording studio pingponging manically around during one of the Scrooge-ghost tete-a-tetes.
We won't linger on the story, since you've no doubt caught one of the countless adaptations since the Charles Dickens piece was first published in 1843. We meet the grizzled grinch as a bitter old man hovering over the open coffin of his newly dead partner, Jacob Marley. The fearsome image morphs from a book illustration into the weirdly life-like look that comes with motion-capture animation.
Marley looks ghastly -- chain-rattling ghostly will come later -- as a sinister Scrooge plucks the pence off those sewn-shut peepers. Flash forward seven years, and Scrooge is bah-humbugging his way through another yuletide: cowing carolers, lecturing his lackey Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman, who, like Carrey, takes on multiple voices, including Marley's), rejecting his nephew's annual Christmas dinner invitation (Colin Firth, who does "English gentleman" awfully well) and generally grousing about the season.
But we know judgment day is coming when Scrooge's goose will be marinated in misery by our three ghostly Christmas cooks.
It is here that Zemeckis' love of all of his 3-D toys really gets wound up. The entry of the spectral Marley, soon followed by the very un-merry past, present and future fellows was designed by Dickens to create three stages of introspection for Scrooge. In Zemeckis' version, they represent the chance to infuse tons of extensively choreographed "Mission: Impossible" moments -- think of that speeding train in the tunnel recast as a dunce's cap that carries a clinging Scrooge on a rocket ship ride through the Milky Way.
Which brings us to what the movie is really all about -- the special effects. The film really does work the 3-D application in remarkable ways, possibly the best that we've seen from filmmakers, almost making the cost of those weird glasses worth it.
But the most affecting multidimensional moments are not the blown-out action sequences with this or that tumbling toward you, which is what you might expect. Instead, it's the way you seem to float through the snow and over the rooftops of London, the sensation of movement and depth making it feel as if you're perched on the cameraman's shoulder as he swings the lens around, capturing the city and its citizens from all sides.
Within that enhanced perspective, Zemeckis drops his "performance captured" central characters, not really an appealing one in the bunch, with the wizardly Scrooge the least likable, even his post-ghost makeover doesn't help. The filmmaker has long been fascinated by the possibilities of motion capture, which he played with exhaustively in "Polar Express," a mesmerizing experiment if you could get past its children-of-the-dead look. There's a flicker of life in the eyes this time, but something creepily Stepford remains.
The technology adds an intensity to the experience that is likely to make some parents queasy and some young ones scream or squirm, as the things that go bump in the night scurry about, levitating through doors, exposing the skeletal childlike visages of human want and need hiding under Christmas Present's robes, and all the other horrors of a Victorian depression.
The dialogue includes lines many of us could recite by rote from watching various tellings of the story over the years (an excellent version with George C. Scott is one of my favorites). Laced in between the familiar is all of Carrey's comic business, which has a familiarity all its own. Some of the funny bits prove a relief from Scrooge's bitterness and the ghosts' nasty grudges, but like a very long laughing jag by Christmas Present, they tend to go on far too long.
What are in very short supply, though, are the central chords of Dickens' carol: Crachit's generous spirit, Tiny Tim's sad plight, Scrooge's emotional arc as he finds his humanity. Oh, the scenes are there amid the action, but they are fleeting. By the time "A Christmas Carol" finishes piling its many shiny presents with their many bells and whistles under the tree, there's no room left for tears for Tiny Tim. Bah humbug indeed.
'A Christmas Carol'
MPAA rating: PG for scary sequences and images
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: In general release