It's not hard to see how the director of Forrest Gump would be thought a good fit to adapt the dearly beloved (and much lampooned) Charles Dickens tale that has survived nearly 170 years of retelling if you count the Flintstone, Muppet, and Barbie versions. Stuffed with simple souls winning over a stingy misanthrope to the view that life is a box of chocolates even when it manifestly isn't, A Christmas Carol is nothing if not a meaty yarn. It's a lot more besides, but Robert Zemeckis, a cutting-edge animator who hasn't told a decent story since 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, has a tin ear for Dickens' grand moral melodramas, or just doesn't care much. What switched him on were the CGI possibilities of Ebenezer Scrooge's journey back to the future, which Zemeckis has folded into, of all things, a horror story so terrifying that even my hardened 11-year-old clutched my arm in fright. Or was that me clutching hers?
A Christmas Carol is a whiz-bang 3-D thrill ride with all the emotional satisfaction squeezed out of it. For what it's worth, the movie's performance-capture digital tricks all but abolish the boundary between live action and animation. That gives Jim Carrey, sunken into a great beak of a nose and a never-ending chin, a chance to show off the full range of his india-rubber body language as he morphs from bent old Scrooge to fresh young Scrooge — in love and not yet warped by want and paternal abuse — and back again to the money-grubbing grinch who's so cheap that he stoops to filch the coins placed over the eyes of his dead partner, Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman).
But we're not permitted to dwell on the old miser's past life, or his tyranny over poor Bob Cratchit (Oldman again, only ruddy and round), or anything you might connect to with feeling rather than sensation. Zemeckis keeps pulling us away to where the action (and the tween-boy market) is at: Scrooge in his nightdress, hurtling over the rooftops of a beautifully rendered London winter whose falling snowflakes threaten to drift right up your nostrils; or skiing down icy streets, or tumbling down black holes into the abyss that was, is, and might be.
While he's there, he's beaten and bruised, dangled and verbally abused for the good of his bitter old soul by Marley, who flings chains in our faces and does Freddie Krueger things with his jaw that you wouldn't want to see in a PG movie. To say nothing of the ghosts of Scrooge's life passages, all flagellating the crap out of him, all played by Carrey, and none remotely like Dickens' vision of Scrooge's own conscience: For reasons unknown, Christmas Past is whimsically realized as a cunning little critter with a severed head on fire, while Christmas Present pitches up as a red-headed, manically ho-ho-hoing giant who looks like a cross between Robbie Coltrane and Jesus Christ — at which point the effects team appears to have lost interest, for the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a drugstore Halloween Grim Reaper in black sheet and clawed fingers, while all the good-guy characters save one (Scrooge's kindly former employer Fezziwig, an enchantingly tubby eggcup presence, is delightfully rendered by Bob Hoskins) have to make do with grimy replicas of the Cabbage Patch Doll faces worn by the travelers on Zemeckis' Polar Express.
When A Christmas Carol isn't carried away by its own frenzied motion, it's a ruinously stiff tableau vivant of good folk (Colin Firth, wearing a squashed Colin Firth face, phones it in as Scrooge's honest-to-God nephew) valiantly toasting the éminence grise in his absence and wringing their hands over the possible demise of Tiny Tim. Granted, the priggish tyke is one of Dickens's more cloying creations — had Oscar Wilde not given his bitchy all to chortling over the death of Little Nell, he'd undoubtedly have sunk his incisors into poor Tim, a saint so blamelessly Forrest Gump–ish that it's hard to resist the urge to club him with his own crutch.
Many of Dickens' characters begin as caricatures, but the best are so deeply felt, so fleshed out and bred in the bone of their creator's horrible childhood, that they become universalized expressions of our own fears, and our need to be forgiven. Zemeckis milks Tim's pathos for every holy drop, leaving little breathing room for the final chapter's most powerful parable, in which Scrooge does penance for a life squandered on avarice and acquisition.
On the plus side, Zemeckis avoids screaming parallels to recessionary villains we love to hate. Scrooge is no Bernie Madoff — he's an early-capitalist accumulator who would have thrown a visiting venture capitalist out on his ear. More to the point, though, he's a mensch in hiding, deformed by an abusive father and by a terror of poverty so profound that it blinds him to the insight that you can't take it with you, that wealth should be shared, and that life is best lived with others. That's the message that will make A Christmas Carol live forever as a novel. In Zemeckis' new and far from improved version, it comes buried in software.