Razzle dazzle

Robert Zemeckis's version of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol may be soulless, but it is visually impressive

Jim Carrey digitally processed as both the Ghost of Christmas Present, left, and Ebenezer Scrooge in Robert Zemeckis's A Christmas Carol.
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Part of Hollywood's blossoming love affair with digital 3D, A Christmas Carol stars a "motion capture" version of Jim Carrey as the classic Dickensian anti-hero Ebenezer Scrooge, a penny-pinching Victorian curmudgeon who is persuaded to mend his mean-spirited ways by a terrifying series of ghostly yuletide visitations.

The director Robert Zemeckis is on extremely familiar ground here. Written in 1843, primarily as a means for Charles Dickens to pay off his own crippling debts, A Christmas Carol later became the evergreen inspiration for dozens of festive films. More than 50 adaptations have been made to date for both big and small screen, including several animated features. Carrey has even played a version of Scrooge before, in Ron Howard's 2000 live-action smash The Grinch.

Clearly conscious of this historical legacy, Zemeckis combines fidelity to his 19th-century source material with cutting-edge 21st-century technology. The director stays broadly true to the book's structure, condensing passages of dialogue directly from Dickens, and even using John Leech's original illustrations for visual reference. His most obvious departures from the novel are the fast-paced action sequences, such as the nightmarish fantasy vision in which Scrooge shrinks down to doll size as a ghostly funeral hearse chases him through the city's cobbled streets.

Some reviewers have protested that such Harry Potter-style distractions add nothing to the substance of the story, but they make for perfectly harmless spectacle. In fact, this is where Zemeckis presses home his competitive advantage over previous Dickens adaptations: by maximising the potential of digital animation for grand visual flourishes. Right from the opening shot, an aerial swoop across the snowy rooftops of Victorian London, A Christmas Carol is a sense-swamping thrill ride.

The digital 3D version is particularly impressive. Projecting flurries of snowflakes, horse-drawn carriages and vast cityscapes into the air before you, this eye-popping visual bling is the main selling point. Refreshingly, with his nuanced performance as Scrooge, Carrey tones down his usual hyperactive clowning. In voice and manner, he appears to be channelling Mr Burns from The Simpsons - which makes sense, as the cartoon's tight-fisted tycoon is clearly an indirect homage to Scrooge himself.

Like Tom Hanks in The Polar Express, Carrey plays multiple roles, including all three Christmas ghosts. In these he is less impressive, sporting a wobbly range of accents that slip between England, Ireland and Scotland, often in the space of a single sentence. This is an oddly clumsy oversight for such an expensive and meticulously detailed project, but perhaps Zemeckis was counting on non-British audiences not noticing, or caring.

In motion-capture terms, Scrooge's heavily lined gargoyle face and bony, elongated body are extremely well realised. And yet, despite looking like a digitally generated Freddie Krueger, Carrey still manages to convey sympathy for his character's essential loneliness and self-loathing. The portrayals of the first two ghosts, the first a kind of giant talking candle, the second a gargantuan Father Christmas figure, are also imaginatively done.

Alas, the rest of the cast are not afforded the same level of expressive detail. The digitally manipulated Gary Oldman, Bob Hoskins and Colin Firth are all just about recognisable as themselves, but resemble lifeless waxworks more than real people. In some cases, these creepy showroom dummies are actually more scary than the ghosts. Impressive as it is, motion-capture technology is plainly not yet advanced enough to replace or even fully replicate human beings. Photo-realistic? Bah, humbug!

The creaky cautionary message of A Christmas Carol is perhaps too familiar and too obvious to move 21st-century hearts. Indeed, in our more cynical consumerist age, there is always a danger that Scrooge's sour attacks on shallow seasonal sentiment may even strike modern viewers as refreshingly frank. In this, Dickens may be just as much to blame as Zemeckis. This latest re-telling certainly feels slick, soulless and mechanical, but at least it is surprisingly low on schmaltzy Hollywood sentiment. Unlike previous adaptations, Zemeckis does not linger long on Scrooge's conversion to festive good cheer, perhaps realising that nice characters are essentially dull.

A Christmas Carol is undoubtedly more engaging technically than emotionally, but it works just fine as razzle-dazzle spectacle.