The Polar Express

on November 10, 2004 by Kim Williamson
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Maya. Houdini. RenderMan. Motionbuilder. Splat. It's a bit odd for a film whose intent is to distill the essence of Christmas in childhood terms to rely so heavily on the highest-end computer technology to come to life--as though filmmaker Robert Zemeckis were not searching through the recesses of the human soul but rummaging through a set of obscure algorithms for his secret insight into what truly matters in our existence. And yet, in an early scene, in which a young Midwestern lad is alone in his Norman Rockwell of a boy's bedroom, there's a slight yet marvelous puff of steam from the radiator in front of the coldened window that looks out onto a nighttime expanse of snow where, soon and to his intense surprise, a large steam engine and train will arrive to carry him off to the North Pole. Now growing up, the youngster--unnamed, except for a "Hero Boy" credit moniker--has begun to doubt whether Santa really exists, and on this Christmas Eve, through the intercession of a fantastical magic, the drive to doubt and the wish to believe are going to collide and decide his ultimate moral fate.

In the beginning, there was the text-slight, pastel oils-rich children's picture book, "The Polar Express," which Michigan native Chris Van Allsburg created in 1985. Five million copies later and limitless readings in homes worldwide that counted those of the Zemeckis and Tom Hanks clans among them, the book became the starting point for a script by Zemeckis and co-writer William Broyles Jr. (Zemeckis' "Cast Away"), during the writing of which Broyles realized that, due to its planned digital rendering, "anything was possible." For some fans of the book, that could be problematic, as in the stretching of the telling the duo have added much frolic--as in a zingy song-and-dance number that involves chefs and waiters delivering hot cocoa to all the children on the polebound train--and folderol--as in a long, confusing, and almost dreary journey through Santa Town. But otherwise, Van Allsburg admits, "the movie would last 12 minutes," an estimation probably generous by eight. Next came the tessellation of dots and pixels--the reflective markers so densely placed on the bodies of the human actors that the capturing went beyond mere motion to the performances themselves, and the 50 GBs a day of recorded data, then pushed and pulled by a CG crew headed by the much-Oscared Ken Ralston (Zemeckis' "Who Framed Roger Rabbit").

Yet do all those efforts result in a film that is rich in feeling and evocative of "the true Christmas"? Not nearly as much as one wants. Perhaps it's that the book itself is flawed in its deconstructive insistence that belief follows seeing, and its somehow self-satisfied and-only-I-survived conclusion. If not the book but the film, then perhaps it's that the eyes, the windows of the soul, were part of the 20 percent of the movie's character rendering that was classically animated, and so seem of a different world; perhaps it's that the realistic rendering of the human characters is so real, yet the characters are so obviously not "alive," that a moviegoer feels displaced. Whatever it is, older members of the audience might find the characters' look downright creepy. (Children, being more adaptable and unschooled by decades of filmviewing, are less likely to be put off by this.) Yet, once one looks away from the people to gaze at the gorgeous landscapes and fabulous objects (the train is a wonderment), one feels transported by the film.

Powered by a highly successful premiere as the closing-night title at the Chicago International Film Festival, sneak previews on the pre-opening Saturday and a day-before Van Allsburg workshop via satellite at almost 100 Regal, UA and Edwards sites for some 30,000 schoolchildren, and a marketing campaign possibly costing $120 million that would bring Warner Bros.' total tab nigh on the $300 million mark, "The Polar Express" is likely to be a locomotive out of the gate. [Later Ed. Note: Perhaps that would be a toy locomotive, given the disappointing $23.5 million opening.] For any of those who see it once and think that's enough should think twice, though, as the film, in a feature first, also bows day-and-date on 70-plus Imax 3-D screens. Blessed by the "volumetric" illustrations in the original book by Van Allsburg (who began his career as a sculptor) and further assisted by Zemeckis' insistence on 360-degree motion capture, Imax's DMR version is spectacular when it succeeds, which is almost all the time. (There is occasional ghosting.) Taken with the "3-D touches" he added for the Imax version, Zemeckis then retrofitted those into the traditional version; but for the full effect of "The Polar Express" audiences should see it at least twice, both 35 and 15/70. Voiced by Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Jimmy Bennett, Eddie Deezen and Andre Sogliuzzo. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Robert Zemeckis and William Broyles Jr. Produced by Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Gary Goetzman and William Teitler. A Warner Bros. release. Animated. Rated G. Running time: 97 min

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