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Polar Express, The (2004) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 10 November 2004
There’s no escaping “The Polar Express” It’s bearing down on all of us, thundering, hissing and honking, a juggernaut of determinedly glorious entertainment. Tom Hanks, who kind of stars, and Robert Zemeckis, who directed and co-wrote the script, are turning up on what seems to be every talk show other than the one hosted by Alf. They talk excitedly about the process the film employs, pointing out how the method allows the director almost infinite possibilities in blocking the action and choosing performances. We see shot after shot of Tom Hanks in a black skin-tight suit that looks like he just got back from SCUBA diving, his face covered in a network of tiny dots. No longer mere “motion capture,” the computer-driven method used in other movies, including “Lord of the Rings” (Gollum) and “Final Fantasy,” it has been rechristened “performance capture,” since now the actors’ facial expressions had been caught.

And they talk about the wonder and enchantment of Chris Van Allsburg’s book, evidently a perennial holiday favorite for the last twenty years or so (which is why I am not familiar with it but parents are). The 29-page book includes about 14 pages of text and 15 pages of big, rich color paintings, each of which has been duplicated in the movie.

There’s no doubt that “The Polar Express” is technically dazzling, a great step toward the peculiar goal of rendering images of human beings so realistically that they can’t be told from the real thing. Look out, world, for the return of, say, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe (two of the long-gone actors most often mentioned in this context). The trouble, of course, is that the animators won’t be able to make the choices that Bogey and Marilyn would have made; they’ll remain marionettes, an amazing simulacrum but, all too clearly, not the real thing.

And that’s the problem with “The Polar Express.” First, all the characters on screen resemble human beings; they move like them, even to small gestures, twitches of the eyebrow and so forth. But they are manifestly NOT human beings; they still look like computer images, even though those images are driven by the motions of real people, often Tom Hanks. He did the motions for several characters, the conductor (who even looks like Hanks), the mysterious hobo, and Santa Claus, as well as the little boy to whom the adventure happens. He’s not cited as the source for the boy’s father, but it’s pretty clearly Tom again.

But in yoking this animation, of a sort, so closely to real motions is to strip it of the versatility of standard animation, even standard CGI animation. All you have to do is compare any five minutes of “The Polar Express” with any five minutes of “The Incredibles.” The superiority of the animation in the Pixar movie is obvious; that of “The Polar Express” comes down to “nice try;” this technique has limited application, the exact opposite of more traditional animation. The movie would work better on every level if they had simply done it in live action, then finished the film in the computer.
However, despite the focus of the publicity, there’s more to “The Polar Express” than just the technique. Van Allsburg’s book is brief, another way of telling the old tale of the importance of belief. The best manifestation of that idea, in Christmas terms, is probably the original “Miracle on 34th Street;” in more mundane terms, it’s “Portrait of Jennie.” This idea can make for very moving stories, memorable icons of our lives—even though it’s pretty damned hard to put that kind of belief into practice in our daily lives.

Still, “The Polar Express” is a remarkably beautiful, flowing representation of that idea; it glides along its tracks at top speed, at least until the protracted ending, and there are wonderful sights along the way.

It’s the night before Christmas in a typical if old-fashioned American neighborhood. Our hero boy (physically Hanks, vocally Daryl Sabara) has begun to doubt there really is a Santa Claus, and has even infected his younger sister with that skepticism. Still, he really wants to hear those sleigh bells of the eight reindeer drawing Santa’s sleigh.

But instead, he’s awakened by an impressive rumble. He runs downstairs to his front lawn, amazed to see a cloud of steam out of which emerges an enormous old-fashioned locomotive at the head of a long train. The conductor (vocally and physically Hanks) invites him aboard this special train, bound for the North Pole. “This is your crucial year,” the brusque but friendly conductor tells him.

The boy climbs aboard and is soon befriended by a girl his age (Nona Gaye); they’re both curious about another passenger, who shyly took the empty car behind theirs, which is filled with excited children. Eventually, they coax the lonely boy into being friends.

The kids—and we—are amazed at one delight after another. A flock of singing, tap-dancing, leaping waiters bursts into the room, singing about and serving everyone “Hot Chocolate.” Their aprons become cloth-draped tables, they’re unerring in pouring the chocolate, and they’re gone as quickly as they came. At another point, the girl’s ticket—not yet punched—blows away and we follow it in the snowy wilderness, blowing past trees and a pack of wolves.

The plot leads the boy to climb atop the train where he finds a mysterious hobo (Hanks again) boiling coffee over a fire he’s managed to build on the snowy roof of the train. The boy skiis atop the train, the train hurtles up and down roller-coaster-themed precipices, it’s stalled for a while by a herd of caribou, and for a while leaves its tracks and whips about on a vast frozen lake.

All this is visually exciting—the images are stunning throughout—but all of it feels shoehorned into the story, incidents added to lengthen the brief tale to feature length. Each sequence does reinforce the idea of belief, even the encounter with the hobo who has the disconcerting habit of dissolving into wind-blown snow. But there’s no sense of menace at any point, just harmless thrill-ride excitement; it’s perfectly obvious that no one is going to come to harm, which reduces the interest of the film for adults. It is probably best appreciated by kids under ten, though the visual grandeur and sheer novelty of the technique will keep it moderately interesting for adults.

There’s a peculiar sequence in which the three main kids wander into a car of the train that’s full of lost Christmas toys, principally marionettes. One is of Scrooge, and again, it’s Tom Hanks’ voice. This scene is eerie, even a little scary, but doesn’t clearly relate to the theme of the value of belief.

At one point, the conductor advises his passengers, “One thing about trains—it doesn’t matter where they’re going, the important thing is deciding to get on.” Well, actually, of course, where the train is going is of crucial importance, but this is another idea—albeit a shaky one—that links tightly to the theme of belief.

Finally, of course, the train does reach the North Pole, though at once the main kids are off on their own adventure for a while. Finally, Santa (guess who) shows up, and it all ends happily with the tinkling of a bell from the old gentleman’s sleigh.

The movie is not quite a musical, though it sports a few original songs by Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri, the best of which might be “When Christmas Comes to Town.” Once the train arrives at the north pole, the soundtrack is bedecked with standard Christmas tunes—evidently the local Muzak—including “Silver Bells,” “Here Comes Santa Claus” and, yes, Bing Crosby warbling “White Christmas.” There’s a vaguely satiric air to the use of these songs, as if instead of appreciating them, we are intended to feel a bit scornful.

“The Polar Express” wants to be charming, but charm is not Robert Zemeckis’ long suit; he’s best at fast-paced, comic action, as in his “Back to the Future” movies and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” though he has, of course, worked will with Hanks in the past. But he has a tendency toward sentimentality; he unleashed it in “Forrest Gump,” mostly to good effect, though reined it in with “Cast Away.” It’s impossible to deny the earnestness of “The Polar Express,” of the filmmakers’ intent on making a Christmas classic.” They haven’t achieved that—it’s hard to imagine this becoming anyone’s favorite Christmas movie, however much they like it—and the movie stubbornly refuses to be as charming as it’s clearly intended to be.

The film is being released both in a standard 35mm version and in an IMAX version to be shown in 3D. If your kids are clamoring to see this, and the option is available, you probably should treat them to the 3D version. The movie is physically gorgeous—production design by Rick Carter and Doug Chiang working from Van Allburg’s paintings in the book—and will hold up very well on IMAX’s huge screen. There are several sequences which will be especially impressive in 3D.

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