Laura CliffordIt’s Christmas Eve and a young boy lay in bed, eyes tightly shut, wondering if he will ever hear Santa’s sleigh bells again. Suddenly, everything starts to shake, like an earthquake, and, when the boy looks out the window, a giant black steam locomotive pulls up to his door. He rushes out to be greeted by the Conductor (voice of Tom Hanks) with, “Well, are you coming?”
Where?” the boy asks.
Why, to the North Pole, of course. This is ‘The Polar Express!’”
Roger Zemeckis teams up, once again, with Tom Hanks (“Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away”) in an experimental animation that is the first genuine foray in what is dubbed Performance Capture. The technique is a quantum leap from the method used in giving Gollum life in The Lord of the Rings 2&3.” Here, the motion capture extends to facial expressions as well as body movement as the F/X developers hone their craft. It is the first real exercise, after “Final Fantasy,” to play with the idea of the creation of true virtual actors. What this will do to $20 million earners like Hanks remains to be seen but, I think, “The Polar Express” sets a technical benchmark for the industry.
Experimentation and computer graphic development aside, the story of “The Polar Express” is pretty routine. Hero Boy (voice of Hanks) is having his doubts about Santa Claus and believing in the spirit of Christmas. As he struggles with his thoughts, the Polar Express duly arrives to whisk him to the North Pole to get his lost spirit renewed. Along the trip he meets Hero Girl (voice of Nona Gay) who befriends fellow traveler Lonely Boy (Peter Scolari) and puts up with the gimme-gimme-gimme antics of Know-It-All Boy (voice of Eddie Deezen). The train is filled with other children who need their Christmas spirit rejuvenated but the focus is just on the four principles.
As the magical journey continues, Hero Boy meets the nebulous character of the Hobo (voice of Hanks) who becomes his muse and advisor on things Christmas. He and his newfound friends also experience several F/X roller coaster rides that should lend themselves well to the game video that is bound to come out of this. As the Performance Capture technique becomes more refined (and cheaper) it will lend itself to lower cost animation filmmaking and enhanced gaming.
As a movie there is little beyond the CGI development to attract and keep your attention. The film and its screenplay are derived from the 29-page children’s picture book of the film’s title by Chris Van Allsberg. This, I think, is the main fault with “The Polar Express” – there isn’t enough story to sustain the film and copious CGI F/X are used to fill the void. Compare this to the wonderful complexity of the other currently playing CGI film, “The Incredibles.” The latter is real storytelling with computer graphics as a tool of the creation process. The former is all CGI with short shrift given to the story and its inherent lack of intelligent entertainment.
The Polar Express” is further experimentation by the innovative Zemeckis and will have resonance in future filmmaking. Here, it is just an exercise to stretch the technology envelop in the film art to see what can be done. The film falls short of present expectation but the future contribution it makes should be obvious. I give it a C.
A young boy grows suspicious about the existence of a Santa Claus even his little sister questions as needing to be able to travel at the speed of light with a sleigh the size of an ocean liner. Restless on Christmas Eve, the boy feigns sleep when his parents come in to check on him. 'An express train wouldn't wake him up,' dad whispers as they leave his room, but moments later the child witnesses the arrival outside his very door of "The Polar Express."
Producer/Writer/Director Robert Zemeckis ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," "Forrest Gump") brings the technologically ballyhooed adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's twenty year old children's book to the screen with Oscar winner Tom Hanks featured in five motion-captured performances, but this train never quite leaves the station. The animation style, which has been featured almost exclusively in video game creation, renders humans almost real but for their flat, unsparkling eyes, amidst the softly lighted backgrounds of a Thomas Kinkade painting. The 32 page book has been stretched into a feature with repetition (numerous roller coaster effects, a ticket wafting into the air not once, but twice) and the introduction of extraneous characters ('The Hobo'). Its single best scene, where an Express ticket takes an airborne journey aided by the rush of a wolf pack and the flight of a bald eagle, comes courtesy of the vastly superior, similarly themed, thirty minute UK animation, "The Snowman."
The film's look can be astonishing (presumably more so on the IMAX screen), especially in such details as fabric movement, but the filmmakers resistance to rendering the humans too realistically may have hurt the film - it is only in those few brief moments when the riders of "The Polar Express" do almost look real that one can believe in them. The wolves, eagles and caribou are far more pleasing to the eye than the 'Hero boy,' conductor or cartoonish (and irritating) train engineers Smokey and Steamer (both voiced by the late Michael Jeter). 'Hero Girl' (voiced by Nona Gaye, "The Matrix: Revolutions") resembles an American Girl doll while 'Lonely Boy' (Hank's 'Bosom Buddies' costar Peter Scolari) is an artificial version of "Malcolm in the Middle's" Dewey. Vocal performances are average with the exception of Eddie Deezen's ("Spy Hard") 'Know-It-All-Boy,' although Hanks does succeed in creating five unique voices.
A sense of deja vu sets in immediately with composer Alan Silvestri's music a mushy echo of Elfman's "Edward Scissorhands" score. Songs, beginning with the rousingly animated "Hot Chocolate," are bland.
"The Polar Express" does include some scenes of startling beauty and musters Christmas spirit with its grand climax (again using a device from 1978's "The Snowman"), but the film's predominant inspiration is one of boredom. A quick appearance at film's end by Aerosmith singer Steve Tyler as a rocking elf is grossly out of place.
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