When I was a kid, gathering around the TV set to watch one of the old movie adaptations of A Christmas Carol the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen, or the 1951 remake with Alastair Sim was as cozy and cherished a holiday ritual as watching It's a Wonderful Life or (God help us, every one) A Christmas Story is today. So indelible is the toasty magic of those twin Dickens films that I have never had much use for any other Christmas Carol like, say, all those family dinner-theater productions (''Judd Hirsch is Scrooge!''). So when it was announced that writer-director Robert Zemeckis would do a new version for Disney, using the same photo-realist, motion-capture animation technique that begot The Polar Express and all its eager rubber-faced children (and starring the reflexively ironic Jim Carrey as Scrooge), all I could think was, ''Not for me.''
How wonderfully wrong I was! Disney's A Christmas Carol is a marvelous and touching yuletide toy of a movie, and the miracle is that it goes right back to the gilded Victorian spirit of those black-and-white films of yore. From the hypnotic opening shot, which seems to travel through every nook and cranny of London without a cut, Zemeckis signals that he's made a bold technical leap: The faces are now fully expressive, the streets and buildings so real you could touch them. Ebenezer, with his drooping flesh and coldly fearful eyes, is no caricature Carrey plays him with scolding sharpness and a plummy deep melancholy and his journey unfolds with a classicism that is only enhanced by Zemeckis' spangly visual flamboyance. He makes the ghost of Marley, for instance, a figure of true terror. After this grisly bit of paranormal activity, we can see that Scrooge's redemption has already begun.
A Christmas Carol, as Dickens wrote it, might almost be about the original case of psychotherapy, with the ghosts as shrinks who reveal to Scrooge the dynamic interior forces that shaped him. Zemeckis stages the familiar episodes briskly, with more jaunty showbiz than we're used to he uses Carrey and Gary Oldman in multiple roles yet without sacrificing any emotion. The spirits have a spooky majesty (the Ghost of Christmas Past is a disembodied head of flame), and when Scrooge's home gets turned into a roving hovercraft with an invisible floor that allows him to stare at his life, the sci-fi-ish conceit doesn't distance us. It mirrors the dislocation of a man who is now dreaming with his eyes wide open. Zemeckis does hit one false note, dropping an incongruous ''action'' scene into the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come episode. That's the rare misstep, though, in a Christmas Carol that left me festive with delight, not to mention in dire need of a holiday hankie. A