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A Christmas Carol (PG)

Christmas has come early, and it's a thoroughly ghoulish affair

Robert Zemeckis's first motion-capture cartoon, Polar Express, was meant to be a cockle-warming children's panto, but instead it was just creepy. The characters were almost photo-realistic, but still not quite human, so they looked like a cross between Tom Hanks and the sentient mannequins from Dr Who. Zemeckis's follow-up, Beowulf, got around that problem by being intentionally blood-curdling, and his third film using the technology is even more ghoulish. In the director's eyes, A Christmas Carol is a gothic horror extrava-ganza to compare with Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell.

It has some child-friendly delights, of course. A perfect pairing of kaleidoscopic story and cutting-edge visuals, A Christmas Carol has several swooping flights over a snow-dusted Victorian London which are all the more marvellous in 3D. And then there's Scrooge's eventual embrace of the Christmas spirit. But in this telling of Dickens's tale, the happy ending is a grudging afterthought. What really gets Zemeckis's creative juices flowing is the opportunity to frighten the willies out of us, and his throng of beautifully spine-tingling spectres does just that. The darkness in isn't merely supernatural. Just as unnerving is the characterisation of Ebenezer Scrooge, not as a laughable curmudgeon, but as a desiccated, bilious vulture who can shut up a choir of carollers with one frosty glare.

Unusually for a cartoon, A Christmas Carol takes the time for some slow, quiet, dimly lit scenes which establish just how isolated and misanthropic Scrooge is. Much of the credit should go to Jim Carrey, who provides the voice and movements of Scrooge and the three Christmas ghosts. Carrey isn't known for being a versatile or self-effacing actor, but he submerges his persona so completely that you might guess the Ghost of Christmas Past was voiced by an Irishman; Scrooge was one of The League of Gentlemen, and the Ghost of Christmas Present was Ringo Starr.

As long as you're prepared to be chilled, A Christmas Carol is a splendid ghost-train ride. My main complaint is that it's being released such a long time before 25 December. But considering how spooky it is, maybe it's fitting that it's coming out so soon after Hallowe'en.