The question, as 'Disney's A Christmas Carol' flies into theaters, is not whether you want to see it again; history tells us you do. But how badly do you want to see it in motion capture animation, the process that director Robert Zemeckis' used on his last two films, 'Beowulf' and 'The Polar Express?' Since Charles Dickens' first public reading of 'A Christmas Carol' in 1853, his novella about the redemption of the miser Ebenezer Scrooge has been dramatized on stage, records, radio, television, film and even opera. In movies, where a silent version first hit the screen in 1901, it has been told in nearly every format, from live-action to Muppetry to computer-animation, and its lamentable hero has been played by everyone from Lionel Barrymore to Bill Murray and Yosemite Sam.
The question, as 'Disney's A Christmas Carol' flies into theaters, is not whether you want to see it again; history tells us you do. But how badly do you want to see it in motion capture animation, the process that director Robert Zemeckis' used on his last two films, 'Beowulf' and 'The Polar Express?'
The answer here is badly, very badly indeed.
I wasn't blown away by the stories told in the first two films, but the imagery was breath-taking. Motion capture is one of the most exciting innovations in modern movies, especially when shown in 3D in IMAX theaters where I saw 'Beowulf' and 'The Polar Express' and where I will see 'A Christmas Carol.' (The movie will also be shown in both 3D and flat versions around the country.)
From the stunning trailers for 'Carol,' it seems clear that Zemeckis has worked the kinks out of his motion capture process, by which actors' movements are digitally caught and projected onto 3D computer models. 'The Polar Express' had an almost experimental clumsiness about it, especially in the neither-realistic-nor-cartoonish faces of the characters, and the violence in 'Beowulf' was off-putting in its excess.
With 'A Christmas Carol,' the process and story seem meant for each other, and former Grinch Jim Carrey is meant for both of them. Carrey, the most gifted physical actor of his generation, plays not only Scrooge but the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future and three other roles. You may not recognize him in each or any of those parts, but the performances are his, as are those of Gary Oldman (Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley and Tiny Tim) and Bob Hoskins (Mr. Fezziwig).
The advantage of motion-capture over Pixar-styled computer animation is the weight and dimension of the characters. They appear as cartoon figures but because the computer images are laid over live performances, the movements have a photo realism that CGI doesn't. And the added appeal of 3D is not having objects thrown in your face but of being drawn directly into the scenes with the characters.
Tiny Tim, see you this weekend.
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