Rated G - Running Time: 1:30 - Released 11/10/04

Robert Zemeckis’s 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 won’t need actors at all. Heck, they only used one (namely, Zemeckis’s old Forrest Gump/Cast Away buddy Tom Hanks) for nearly every principal character in the film. But in this cartoon it’s not just the voice the actor is supplying—by 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 film’s 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 Hanks’s face was so covered with those little computer sensor thingies, he looked like a teenager who’d 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. Couldn’t 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 32–page 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, Hanks’s 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 he’s 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 Earth’s 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 by—Guess 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 film’s 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 I’m 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. ****

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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