There’s a certain irony in having a timeless tale about a man finding his soul being told in the most soulless way possible. Robert Zemeckis returns to the holidays with his mocap version of A Christmas Carol, and once again he proves he doesn’t quite get what the season is all about (maybe he can make strike three a mocap remake of It’s A Wonderful Life). In the meantime his version of Dickens’ most famous story reveals a cynicism so deep in Zemeckis I don’t think he even knows it’s there.

A Christmas Carol is probably in our DNA at this point; children are born with an inherent knowledge of the story of Scrooge, Marley, the three ghosts and Tiny Tim. The sheer familiarity of the story demands that a new adaptation bring something unique to the table and, rather than reimagine the story or approach it from a new angle, Zemeckis has chosen to turn it into a roller coaster ride. He actually sticks fairly slavishly to the original Dickens, but he also adds liberally, throwing in a number of scenes that allow the camera to swoop and swish through 3D CGI vistas of Victorian London. Again and again I felt like my seat should be moving, like I was on a very fancy ride at Disneyland. It was the same thing he did with Polar Express, using the freedom of the CGI camera and the 3D effect to turn the narrative into something like an amusement park ride, making literal the ‘It was a ride!’ metaphor people use to defend moron movies.

And that’s about the depth of Zemeckis’ understanding of Christmas and the story of Scrooge. In Zemeckis’ script Scrooge’s change of heart is mostly motivated by a deep fear of going to Hell. Empathy never seems to really enter the equation, and if this was Zemeckis’ subversive plan – to attack Christmas by exposing how self-serving it is – I would be forced to applaud him. If that was his plan, and nothing in the film indicates that Zemeckis is trying to be all that subversive.

Which is too bad, because the only times the movie comes alive is when the nasty little boy in Zemeckis gets to come out and play. This version of A Christmas Carol plays up the ghosts as creepy otherworldly beings, and you can feel Zemeckis’ cold, digital heart start warming up whenever he gets to unleash a little bit of mayhem on Scrooge. Of course the Ghost Of Christmas Yet to Be is the best of the lot (as he always is), even though his segment is hampered by a very long, very idiotic chase scene.

Jim Carrey plays Scrooge and the ghosts, and it’s the kind of performance that would have been more enjoyable in a cheesy way if he had done it under a ton of make-up. The digital characters look good – while Zemeckis’ understanding of Christmas hasn’t evolved since Polar Express, his technology sure has – but they’re charmless. It’s sort of interesting how you can see Jim Carrey in each of the characters, but it’s interesting in the way a good PhotoShop job is interesting; it doesn’t feel organic or present and is just impressive on a sheer technical level. Walking out of my screening I heard a guy going on and on about the distressed leather on Scrooge’s chair, and I couldn’t help but think this is exactly what matters the least – how well you render distressed leather (something you could just go and fucking photograph, but whatever) is pointless if you can’t render a good story or strong characters. Zemeckis is stacking his deck here by using a classic story, but you can just about feel him cheating – bringing the book to class isn’t the same as having read and understood it.

Carrey’s fine in the multiple roles. I’m not sure what you expect from Jim Carrey in a mocap movie, but unless what you were hoping for was subtlety and grace, you’ll probably get it. Scrooge looks terrific, a fully realized character that feels like a complete performance. None of the other characters fare as well – they feel like giant grotesque puppets with the grimacing likenesses of actors carved onto them. Most especially defeated is Gary Oldman as a creepy, gnomelike Bob Cratchit; he also plays Tiny Tim and the mocap process makes it hard to tell if the kid is gimped or a poorly stringed marionette. 

I wish A Christmas Carol had been better. Or that it had been worse. The movie is a completely down the middle misfire, mostly boring in the way it plods through an overfamiliar story. This whole film feels like a technical exercise, like Zemeckis was sharpening his skills for the next one, the one where he gets one step closer to getting rid of actual human beings and just snuggling up with his computers. Maybe he’ll keep making mocap movies that have no good reason to be mocap – look for Waiting For Godot in 3D in 2012.

5 out of 10