Pixar reigns supreme. Note the words like 'depressing', 'dull' and 'airborne scrotum'. Judging from the reviews, see 'The Incredibles' twice and skip this dog.
November 10, 2004
MOVIE REVIEW | 'THE POLAR EXPRESS'
Do You Hear Sleigh Bells? Nah, Just Tom Hanks and Some Train
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Based on the 32-page children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, the new animated feature "The Polar Express" has already received attention for the advanced technology employed to make the film and the heart-skipping amount of money reportedly spent to transpose the story from page to screen.
I suspect that most moviegoers care more about stories and characters than how much money it took for a digitally rendered strand of hair to flutter persuasively in the wind.
Nor will they care that to make "Polar Express" Tom Hanks wore a little cap that transmitted a record of his movements to a computer, creating templates for five different animated characters.
It's likely, I imagine, that most moviegoers will be more concerned by the eerie listlessness of those characters' faces and the grim vision of Santa Claus's North Pole compound, with interiors that look like a munitions factory and facades that seem conceived along the same oppressive lines as Coketown, the red-brick town of "machinery and tall chimneys" in Dickens's "Hard Times."
Tots surely won't recognize that Santa's big entrance in front of the throngs of frenzied elves and awe-struck children directly evokes, however unconsciously, one of Hitler's Nuremberg rally entrances in Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will."
But their parents may marvel that when Santa's big red sack of toys is hoisted from factory floor to sleigh it resembles nothing so much as an airborne scrotum.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, who wrote the film with William Broyles Jr., "The Polar Express" is a grave and disappointing failure, as much of imagination as of technology.
Turning a book that takes a few minutes to read into a feature-length film presented a significant hurdle that the filmmakers were not able to clear.
The story seems simple enough: a nameless young boy neither fully believes nor disbelieves in Santa, but doubt nags at him so hard that he dreams up a train, the Polar Express, which transports him to the North Pole.
Essentially Mr. Van Allsburg's story is about faith, not in Jesus, but in the fat man in the red suit who pops around each year on Jesus' birthday.
As with many children's stories, it's also about the power of the imagination.
The film commences on Christmas Eve with a nameless boy (played by Tom Hanks) fidgeting and fighting against sleep. At 8 years of age, the boy seems a little old to be pinning his hopes on Santa.
Yet hope he does perhaps because the story is set in the 1950's, the decade when Mr. Van Allsburg and Mr. Zemeckis were both young Midwestern children.
The illustrations in Mr. Van Allsburg's book have a patina of nostalgia, but there's something distinctly melancholic about them as well. The oil pastels the artist used for the pictures soften even the hardest edge.
And because Mr. Van Allsburg doesn't use loud popping color - even the red uniforms everyone wears at Santa's factory look muted - the images seem at once moody and mysterious.
Mr. Zemeckis and his team have employed a similarly restrained palette, with a wash of midnight blue tinting the snowy exteriors. After the boy falls asleep, he wakes to a train pulling up in his front yard.
After a how-do-you-do with the conductor (Mr. Hanks again), the boy boards the train where he meets a number of other children also dressed in their pajamas. Train rides can make splendid adventures, but not here.
Outside of a lovely sequence involving an errant ticket that flies out the train into the beak of a bird, then past a pack of wolves and a shimmering woodland landscape, the passage to the North Pole chugs rather than zooms, as agonizingly long as a childhood car ride to the relatives.
At last, the train arrives, Santa imparts wisdom, the boy learns a lesson and it all comes to a cozy finish meant to put a lump in your throat.
The filmmakers, meanwhile, deserve a lump of coal for the way they pad the story with the usual peril and amusement-park cum video-game tricks. In this wonderland, danger lurks around every bend.
Kids nearly fly off the train, which in turn slides across ice and hurtles down inclines, a perspective sleight-of-hand that Mr. Zemeckis employs more than once.
Every so often a hobo (Mr. Hanks again) materializes to dispense a cryptic aperÃƒÂ§u to the boy, maybe because the child is the father of the man or because the film's envelope-pushing gobbled up most of the budget and there was only enough money for one star.
Because of the story's charm, and because the film's backdrops are based on Mr. Allsburg's drawings, it's easy to imagine that a movie made with either traditional or digital animation might have worked.
The largest intractable problem with "The Polar Express" is that the motion-capture technology used to create the human figures has resulted in a film filled with creepily unlifelike beings.
The five characters for which Mr. Hanks provided movement and voice (his other avatars are the boy's dad and Santa) certainly bear a resemblance to the actor in the way of good special-effects mask.
Yet none of the humans have the countless discrete fluctuations, the pulsing, swirling, twitching aliveness that can make the actor such a pleasure to watch on screen.
To date, the best-known film character created with motion-capture has been Gollum, the slithering creature from "The Lord of the Rings."
With the actor Andy Serkis providing its outlines, Gollum came across as more or less persuasively real because the character is a non-human creature a-prowl in a fantasy world.
With their denatured physiognomy, the human characters in "Polar Express" don't just look less alive than Gollum; they look less alive than the cartoon family in Brad Bird's "Incredibles."
It's baffling that Mr. Zemeckis, who can make the screen churn with life, didn't see how dead these animated characters look.
It's particularly puzzling since the director's finest work has been actor-driven movies like "Back to the Future, Part II," rather than special-effects-laden duds like "Death Becomes Her."
Animation is engaged in a debate that pits traditional and computer-assisted animation against computer-generated animation.
The idea that anyone loves "Finding Nemo" because it was made wholly on a computer is absurd, but behind this debate lies a larger dispute not only about animation, but film's relationship to the world as well.
On one side of the divide are Pixar visionaries like Mr. Bird and the "Finding Nemo" co-director Andrew Stanton, who either know they can't recreate real life or are uninterested in such mimicry, and so just do what animators have always done: they imaginatively interpret the world.
On the other side of the divide are filmmakers like George Lucas who seem intent on dispensing with messy annoyances like human actors even while they meticulously create a vacuum-sealed simulacrum of the world.
It's worth noting that two important contributors to "The Polar Express," Doug Chiang, one of the production designers, and Ken Ralston, the film's senior visual effects supervisor, worked for years at Mr. Lucas's aptly named company, Industrial Light and Magic.
There's no way of knowing whether they drank the company Kool-Aid. Still, from the looks of "The Polar Express" it's clear that, together with Mr. Zemeckis, this talented gang has on some fundamental level lost touch with the human aspect of film.
Certainly they aren't alone in the race to build marvelous new worlds from digital artifacts.
But there's something depressing and perhaps instructive about how in the attempt to create a new, never-before-seen tale about the wonderment of imagination these filmmakers have collectively lost sight of their own.
The Polar Express
Opens today nationwide.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Mr. Zemeckis and William Broyles Jr., based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg; directors of photography, Don Burgess and Robert Presley; senior visual effects supervisors, Ken Ralston and Jerome Chen; edited by Jeremiah O'Driscoll and R. Orlando Duenas; score by Alan Silvestri, with songs by Mr. Silvestri and Glen Ballard; production designers, Rick Carter and Doug Chiang; produced by Mr. Zemeckis, Steve Starkey, Gary Goetzman and William Teitler; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 97 minutes. This film is rated G.
WITH: Tom Hanks (Hero Boy/Boy's Father/The Conductor/The Hobo/Santa), Michael Jeter (Smokey/Steamer), Peter Scolari (Lonely Boy), Nona Gaye (Hero Girl), Eddie Deezen (Know-It-All Boy) and Charles Fleischer (Elf General).