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Disney's 'A Christmas Carol' offers no surprises

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(PG)

•••1/2 (out of 5)

Starring:

Jim Carrey as Ebenzer Scrooge and Ghosts

Gary Oldman as Bob Cratchit and Jacob Marley

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Colin Firth as Fred

Bob Hoskins as Fezziwig

Robin Wright Penn as Belle

Studio: Disney

Directed by:

Robert Zemeckis

One look at the trailers for Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture visual spectacle that is the latest incarnation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," and you should know exactly what you're going to get.

The tale is so familiar to everyone on the planet that it's hardly worth the time to describe it again. Suffice to say Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is a miser who is visited by a series of ghosts on Christmas Eve, warning him that his greedy and humbug ways will have lasting effects in the afterlife.

Technology hasn't just caught up enough with the story to effectively tell it, but it has surpassed the original tale. Director Robert Zemeckis has made technology the forefront of his films, going back to the "Back to the Future" movies and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" Having directed other films with motion capture, CGI and IMAX 3D (e.g., "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf"), Zemeckis is an expert with the technology.

But does the technology hold up to the storytelling? Yes and no.

There are several ways to look at "A Christmas Carol." First, is it a good telling of the classic story?

For the most part, it is. All the main pieces are there, and with the exception of a slightly plodding first act, the movie holds a decent pace.

Sure, there are moments when the story is tossed out the window for the sake of some wickedly awesome virtual camera action sequences, but these are forgivable considering the audience the film is trying to reach.

Carrey gives a worthy performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, and he also lends his voice and movement to the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is a bit over-the-top, but fortunately, that's really the only place in the film where you see Carrey go too far. Other than that, he is quite restrained.

Other performances - particularly by Colin Firth as Scooge's nephew, Robin Wright Penn as Scrooge's young love and Gary Oldman as Bob Cratchit and Jacob Marley - blew hot and cold.

This leads me to the second angle...

Was "A Christmas Carol" a technological feat?

In terms of the look of the people in the movie, things are better than "The Polar Express" where every character frolicked happily in the uncanny valley.

The characters in "A Christmas Carol" are still living in the valley, but they're trying to escape it.

It's clear that Carrey was given the most attention as Scrooge and the Ghosts look pretty neat.

But Firth and Oldman look goofy as all get-out in virtual form.

Where the film is a technological feat is in the virtual camera movements.

As Scrooge is transported through time to the various Christmases in his life, the audience really is along for the ride.

Here's where the IMAX 3D experience is most effective.

Unlike some films that get an IMAX release, it's worth the extra bucks on the ticket price to see the spectacle on the big screen, and in 3D no less. (Of course, if you're one of those people who isn't turned on by the new digital 3D, you probably should go for the cheaper projection.)

Finally, as a family movie, does "A Christmas Carol" work?

If you listen to some critics and parents, you might think not. I will admit that some of the ghost scenes are particularly terrifying, specifically Marley and the bridge between the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Yet to Come.

However, I was surrounded by kids at the press screening I attended, and they seemed largely unfazed.

During the high-speed diversions where the camera whips through London and the English countryside, there's a lot of slapstick and silliness, which might annoy the parents a bit, but will thrill the kiddies.

This works to balance the more scary scenes so the children in the audience don't get too upset.

In the end, "A Christmas Carol" is exactly what I expected from Zemeckis and company. It's a much more cohesive film than "The Polar Express," and with the Dickens story as the foundation, it's perfect for the holiday season.

Still, my favorite adaptation of the story continues to be Disney's other shot at it: "Mickey's Christmas Carol."

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