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Originally published November 5, 2009 at 3:00 PM | Page modified November 5, 2009 at 5:46 PM

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Movie review

'A Christmas Carol': 3-D adaptation is faithful to the spirit of the 1843 original

"A Christmas Carol," directed by Robert Zemeckis (who made "The Polar Express" with Tom Hanks in several roles), is a scrupulously faithful 3-D version of the Charles Dickens classic starring Jim Carrey as Scrooge — and the ghosts of Christmas past and present.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'A Christmas Carol,' with Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn. Written and directed by Robert Zemeckis. 96 minutes. Rated PG for scary sequences. Several theaters.

MOVIE REVIEW 3 stars

Five years ago, director Robert Zemeckis created "The Polar Express," one of the pioneering success stories of IMAX 3-D. While the movie was less than a knockout in its 2-D or "flat" version, it was carefully designed to be presented with that extra dimension, and box-office grosses soared whenever it was shown at IMAX 3-D theaters.

Zemeckis has now applied some of those same digital techniques (the system is called "performance capture") to a more familiar narrative: "A Christmas Carol," Charles Dickens' much-filmed 1843 novella about a Christmas-hating curmudgeon who repents when he is visited by a series of phantoms.

As with Zemeckis' previous Christmas movie, the story is sometimes overwhelmed by (admittedly groundbreaking) special effects and cartoony roller-coaster simulations that threaten to pull you right out of the movie. But the casting is spot-on, and so is the script.

Scrupulously faithful to the book, Zemeckis' visualizations can be uncannily close to Dickens.

The spirit of Christmas past — described by Dickens as an "unearthly visitor" made up of "dissolving parts" that eventually become "distinct and clear" — sounds like an impossible, unfilmable phenomenon. Yet Zemeckis and his technicians turn the creature into a bright and shining charmer, an unpredictable floating candle that illuminates the extent of Ebenezer Scrooge's youthful follies.

When another of the visiting spirits reveals the threatening nature of a boy called Ignorance and a girl called Want, Zemeckis comes very close to Dickens' description of these scary, feral children as "meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish." They're monster children straight out of a horror movie.

Indeed, Zemeckis never shies away from the ghostly, horrific aspects of Dickens' story. The final visitation, in which a grim reaper appears over what may turn out to be Scrooge's grave, seems awfully similar to the arrival of Mr. Death in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life," but that doesn't lessen its impact.

While "The Polar Express" featured Tom Hanks in several roles, Jim Carrey takes on Scrooge at several stages in his life in "A Christmas Carol." He also plays the ghosts of Christmas past and present.

That may sound like a lot of Jim Carrey, particularly if you're not a fan, but Carrey uses such a wide variety of accents and verbal tricks that you're barely aware of his presence. He dissolves into the characters, becoming Scrooge as a child, or as a teenager, or as an adult, and lending distinction to the spirits.

Several actors also excel at playing more than one role, including Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Gary Oldman and Cary Elwes — who claims that one of his ancestors, John Megwid Elwes, was the real-life inspiration for Scrooge.

In the end, Zemeckis' movie may lack the emotional impact of the 1951 British version of "A Christmas Carol," starring Alastair Sim as a truly transformed and happy Scrooge. Nevertheless, it's a visual treat that respects and artfully enhances its source.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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