Polar Express? a 'grave and disappointing failure'

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Polar Express? a 'grave and disappointing failure'

Postby Steve G » Wed Nov 10, 2004 10:23 am

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

Do You Hear Sleigh Bells? Nah, Just Tom Hanks and Some Train

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 aperçu 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).
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Postby bfd, pirate » Wed Nov 10, 2004 10:28 am

Key line

"As with many children's stories, it's also about the power of the imagination. "

…bfd knew they couldn't pull if off … when the latest trailer showed the "train wreck on ice" bfd knew it was a goner … too bad, so much promise, so little delivery …
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Postby Steve G » Wed Nov 10, 2004 10:42 am

Destroyed by Newsday

'Polar Express' derails in zombie land

November 10, 2004

Anyone 25 or younger probably has a copy of "The Polar Express" on the shelf, or boxed away with the Mario Brothers cartridges, New Kids on the Block albums and pirated copies of "Pee-wee's Playhouse." Published in 1985, Chris Van Allsburg's Caldicott Medal-winning Christmas tale has become to today's wide-eyed wonderers what "A Christmas Carol," "The Night Before Christmas" and "It's a Wonderful Life" have been to generations past.

In other words, it was a movie waiting to happen, bound to happen, with studio executives slavering in anticipation, whether or not the computer technology was ready to do justice to Van Allsburg's memorable illustrations, or offer any justification as to why animation should have been used in the first place.

The sad fact is, the characterizations in Robert Zemeckis' "Polar Express" - created via CGI technology and a new technique called Performance Capture, an advanced motion-capture system that uses live action to choreograph the animation - are, to be brief, creepy.

Watching the dead-eyed population of "Polar Express" and their supposedly "natural" movements made me think more of Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" than anything associated with Christmas. The Polar Express is a zombie train.

Naturally, the relatively tiny book had to be fleshed out to fill the 97 minutes necessary for a major motion picture, so there are musical numbers and extended trips through Santa's toy factory, which give the animators the opportunity to inject high- speed, vertigo-inducing action into a rather placid story line.

The "hot chocolate" scene, in which singing/dancing waiters serve refreshments to the carload of yule tykes, is the most energetic sequence in the film; the repetitive roller-coaster shots of the Polar Express plummeting up and down rolling tracks that make the Alps seem like a salt flat show that the filmmakers were desperate to keep the movie moving.

Tom Hanks voices six roles, including the principal Hero Boy, who, losing his faith in Christmas, is whisked away on Christmas Eve by the conductor (Hanks again) to the North Pole, en route meeting a hobo (Hanks), Ebenezer Scrooge (Hanks) and Santa himself (you guessed it).

His companions include the Hero Girl (Nona Gaye), perhaps the most disturbing-looking character onboard; the Know-It-All Boy (Eddie Deezen), who looks like a cross between Corey Feldman and Henry Kissinger (pretty disturbing itself) and the Lonely Boy (Peter Scolari), who seems destined for unhappiness, except we know better than that.

The only unhappiness will be on the part of an audience looking for magic and getting computer technology instead. If the simulation of human beings was what Zemeckis and Co. were after, they might have tried something novel, and used human beings.

Otherwise, they should have shelved Performance Capture until it could churn out something a bit more appealing than what seem to be the Children of the Damned.
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Postby rcpmac » Wed Nov 10, 2004 11:29 am

My 10 year old daughter saw the preview and was very angry.
Ya can't fool the kids
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Postby Guitarman » Wed Nov 10, 2004 11:31 am

They missed it. they should've done an adaptation of "My Pet Goat".
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Postby decadenza » Wed Nov 10, 2004 11:32 am

It's a Bosom Buddies reunion! Aw, lonely boy doesn't have two Oscars.
When I drive past the kids, they all spit and cuss
Because I've got a bitchin' Camaro and they have to ride the bus.
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Postby HomerNBenderX » Wed Nov 10, 2004 2:40 pm

I'm still waiting for the movie adaptation of "Go Dog Go."
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Postby Skeptic » Wed Nov 10, 2004 2:46 pm

I'm still waiting for the movie adaptation of "Go Dog Go."

Sure, goa head and make fun, but I hear that CBS is prepping a 4-part miniseries on "Pat the Bunny". Look for it during the May sweeps.

Postby Webster J. Duck. » Wed Nov 10, 2004 2:50 pm

Do you like my hat?
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Even our local paper blew it away

Postby Mike F. » Wed Nov 10, 2004 3:24 pm

'Polar Express' won't warm hearts

If your kids need to calm down, take them to see "The Polar Express."

The lifeless film will sedate your children at least through the new year.

The $165 million Robert Zemeckis movie, starring Tom Hanks in multiple roles, is, at times, visually breathtaking. It's been heralded for effectively using a technology that animates live actors, mapping a person's motions onto a computer character. In one scene, an army of tap-dancing servers descends upon the kids, doing synchronized backflips and pouring hot chocolate in all directions, teetering on the edge of disaster.

But the few remarkable bits fail to spark the film to catch fire.

One of the strengths of its majestic source material, Chris Van Allsburg's 29-page, Caldecott Medal-winning book, is its engrossing, minimalist story. On Christmas Eve, a kid who doubts his belief in Santa Claus travels by steam locomotive to the North Pole and is transformed by the journey.

In the movie, there's some danger here and there, and when the train finally arrives at Santa's hometown, everything is overblown Christmas schmaltz, including a legion of hyperactive elves that look ready to rush into battle with the orcs from "The Lord of the Rings."

Director and writer Zemeckis adds new characters, has them singing awful songs and even throws in an elf version of Aerosmith frontman Steve Tyler contributing a ditty. The animated children come across as downright creepy. These nameless kids, with their thin-skinned faces, are noticeably stock and don't exhibit convincing wonder and joy.

While many people will laud the photorealism achieved by the film, it's more like technology abuse. Call me old-school, but cartoons should look like cartoons, not live actors masquerading as if drawn. The more traditional-looking animation that resembles Van Allsburg's rich illustrations is the most engrossing.

Another problem is Hanks. He just overdoes everything these days. He's the conductor, Santa, the hobo, the main child, the father, Scrooge ... I was surprised not to see a Forrest Gump cameo.

Sure, it's a movie intended for very young kids. But none of the children at last week's screening let out any oohs or aahs or even a chuckle. When folks left the theater, the mood was morbid with no chatter of excitement usually associated with good family fare.

If you plan on taking your kids to see one movie this holiday season, Pixar's "The Incredibles" is way cooler. Or better yet, gather around the fireplace and read "The Polar Express."
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Postby Doreme Fasolatedo » Wed Nov 10, 2004 6:03 pm

In all fairness, it has a 60% Fresh rating on rottentomatoes. But most of the positive reviews have disclaimers like this one. Remember these are the good reviews:


  "While entertaining and exciting, Polar Express ultimately is not very enriching, and its emotional climax is particularly empty."

"Good work for the sake of good work -- it delivers something I'll readily admit is enjoyable, but not easily embraceable."

 "Robert Zemeckis has taken Chris Van Allsburg's beloved book and transformed it into a painting of breathtaking beauty but also an animated tale that's stilted and stiff."
-- Jeffrey Bruner, DES MOINES REGISTER
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Postby cunty_baws » Wed Nov 10, 2004 8:42 pm

\i/ oo

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