Disney delivers a not-so-cheery ‘Christmas Carol’

The cinematic depection of old, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge — Charles Dickens’ very own Grinch — is hardly original material.

A Christmas Carol has been adapted too many times to count. Every winter, dramatic renditions of the novella originally published in 1843 are enacted on stages worldwide. Allusions to the tale and comparisons to Scrooge are commonplace.

But in Disney’s latest film, A Christmas Carol, writer-director Robert Zemeckis revitalizes Dickens’ timeworn story into something fresh, original and startlingly macabre.

Zemeckis’ animated retelling stays faithful to Dickens’ tale. One Christmas Eve, a surly Scrooge is visited by four ghosts — the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, as well as the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley — who open his eyes to the terrible consequences of his greed.

What Zemeckis does differently in his version is introduce a magical, transformative ingredient into the mix: digital technology.

The film is a technical feat — and visual treat — that showcases some of the most impressive animation technology and 3-D effects to date.

The characters in A Christmas Carol are astoundingly lifelike. Facial expressions are fluid and convincing, with all the twitches and tremors of real life — gone are the inexpressive, glazed-over faces of The Polar Express.

Close-ups reveal stunningly precise detail, from scraggly nose hairs to unsightly blemishes and pockmarks.

Jim Carrey’s nuance-filled actions translate seamlessly onto the film, but not so much that it blurs together all the diverse characters he plays (Scrooge at many ages, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come). You know it’s Carrey under there, but sometimes you forget — precisely the desired effect.

Still, performance-capture animation is an emerging technology, and, if you look closely, you can see its subtle imperfections in the characters’ dim eyes and slightly stiff movements. Though the animation is gorgeously rendered, it’s missing something — that subtle something that gives human beings the spark of life.

But Zemeckis establishes himself as one of a few who really know how to use 3-D animation, and the film’s spectacular 3-D experience more than makes up for the deficiencies of the still-developing technology.

Snowflakes seem to fall on your shoulders. Candle flames tickle your nose. And in the many breathtaking time-traveling sequences, you feel like you’re zipping through the air with Scrooge: through the snowy trees of his past, crowded buildings of his present and grimy streets of his future.

Animation permits total creative freedom, and Zemeckis takes advantage of it here to retell Dickens’ story in eye-catching form.

Though Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol is an animated production, the movie isn’t for kids. It’s surprisingly dark, weighty and even frightening at parts — more Nightmare Before Christmas than Polar Express.

Zemeckis could’ve easily adapted Dickens’ tale into a heartwarming children’s story, conjuring ghosts that are more Casper-cute than creepy. But the director went down a heavier road, choosing instead to harness all of the sinister, teeth-gritting potential of the original novella.

A Christmas Carol feels a lot more like a suspense thriller than a cheery Christmas movie. Creatures pop out at unexpected moments, and the ghosts are legitimately spooky, not cute (besides the Ghost of Christmas Past, who, befitting his role, is bright and playful).

The personifications of Ignorance and Want, shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Present, are terrifying, emaciated creatures straight out of Gollum’s cave in Lord of the Rings.

The film’s scenes of the future are especially horrifying. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is a grim reaper in the form of an ominous black shadow with long, bony fingers.

At the end, there’s a chilling graveyard scene worthy of a first-rate horror film.

Of course, the film ends on a jolly note, as it’s supposed to. But its final moments of happiness and goodwill aren’t enough to give A Christmas Carol a cheery mood. The movie’s message of good cheer is almost weighed down by its frightening glimpses of how greed and selfishness can destroy a person — bah, humbug indeed.

To an audience accustomed to lighthearted animated movies with comic personalities and innocent themes, the darkness of A Christmas Carol might be disorienting.

But in this film, as in Beowulf, Zemeckis shows that animated movies don’t have to be for children and can be just as real or scary as live-action films.

Take this as a warning from Jacob Marley: Prepare to be spooked.