THE POLAR EXPRESS
Rated G - Running Time: 1:30 - Released 11/10/04
Robert Zemeckiss new digitally animated Christmas movie The Polar Express is yet another showcase for the latest breakthrough in cinematic computer wizardry, further pushing the envelope of capabilities that CGI animation has to offer to the big screen. It also continues to confirm my assertion that someday we wont need actors at all. Heck, they only used one (namely, Zemeckiss old Forrest Gump/Cast Away buddy Tom Hanks) for nearly every principal character in the film. But in this cartoon its not just the voice the actor is supplyingby using motion-capture technology similar to what was used for Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings series, the animators were able to pattern the films visual characters after the actors themselves, including close-ups, so even the most subtle facial movements could be digitally captured and rendered on the screen. I saw a production reel for this movie, and Hankss face was so covered with those little computer sensor thingies, he looked like a teenager whod misplaced his Oxy 10.
This technique, while no doubt amazing, has a side effect that
may be considered a good or bad thing depending on the viewer:
since Tom Hanks is supplying either the voice, the face, or the
body used for this technology (or in some cases all three), practically
every speaking character resembles him, either vaguely or overtly.
While the story is fantastic and the visuals often awe-inspiring,
after a while it begins to look like a one-man show. Couldnt
Warner Brothers scrape up a few other actors who were willing
to submit to this technique?
The story, adapted by Zemeckis and William Broyles from the
popular 32page book by Chris Van Allsburg, begins with a
voiceover from Hanks, who is speaking from the adult perspective
of an unnamed young boy (face of Hanks) recollecting one Christmas
when he was suffering from a Santa-belief crisis. As he is tucked
into bed by his mother (Leslie Zemeckis, a.k.a. Mrs. Director)
and father (Hanks) on Christmas eve, Hankss voice admits
that although he had always wished to hear the telltale sleigh
bells outside, it never happened and he had grown increasingly
skeptical about the existence of the famed fat gift provider.
After drifting off to sleep, he is awakened by the sound of an
approaching train outside his house, where there are no tracks.
It stops, and out steps a smartly dressed conductor (Hanks, with
a Ned Flanders moustache) who asks him if hes coming along.
This is the Polar Express! he booms, so the boy reluctantly
embarks on a weird and wonderful journey to the center of all
things Santa. Incidentally, when he begins speaking as himself,
his voice is that of Spy Kids
star Daryl Sabara.
On the way he meets some other pole-bound children (Nona Gaye,
Eddie Deezen, Peter Scolari/Jimmy Bennett) and a train-roof-dwelling
hobo (Hanks), who join him in his surrealistic and sometimes truly
scary voyage through all sorts of scrapes and near-misses, until
they finally arrive at the Earths northernmost point. There
they encounter a beautiful city populated by thousands of elves,
with a giant Christmas tree in its town square, where they finally
meet the big jolly man himself (played byGuess Who?).
I suppose it is appropriate that this story is named after the train and not the climactic event, since most of it concerns the journey and not the destination. Of the films 90-minute running length, the first hour is spent on the train, wandering through all sorts of beautifully rendered snowy scenery and all sorts of strange, disjointed plot digressions. While the scenic visuals are incredible, the movement is fluid and the shading and texturing are impeccable, the character animation, presumably intended to be realistic and yet have a storybook feel, is at times somewhat creepy, with cartoon characters whose faces are a little too real for animation. And there are times when the story has obviously been padded to extend the running time, with songs, production numbers, and some really weird textual meanderings. Nevertheless, it is indeed an amazing spectacle and a wondrous story, and Im sure it is all the more effective in its original 3-D IMAX incarnation. As for the performances, well, Hanks and all the other Hankses are terrific, as are those who do not reside at the Hanks household, but one does wonder if future filmmakers who use this technology will be so skimpy on the casting. ****