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Castle Rock Entertainment

Official Site

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Producers: Gary Goetzman, Steve Starkey, William Teitler, Robert Zemeckis

Written by: Chris Van Allsburg, Robert Zemeckis, William Broyles, Jr.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Leslie Harter Zemeckis, Eddie Deezen, Nona M. Gaye, Peter Scolari, Charles Fleischer, Steven Tyler


I’ll make it quick and easy for you: If you loved the cute and whimsical ever-floating feather from Forrest Gump, then try not to run over anybody in your SUV on your way to the theater because this film will blow you away. On the other hand, if you watched that feather with a raised eyebrow, you might understand how even perfect whimsy could have a problem. If you didn’t even see Forrest Gump, you have my respect, but you will just have to read the rest of the review.

Polar Express is a popular children’s X-mas book, first published in 1985, which captured the attention of filmmaker Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump), a fearless innovator in the integrated use of special effects. You would think that he would have already made this film by now, but he wanted something more.

Artful animation is no longer sufficient. This film utilizes Sony Pictures Imageworks’ sophisticated new motion capture system, which they like to call and have probably copyrighted, “Performance Capture.” Briefly, this enables a filmmaker to record, in all four dimensions, the detailed physical movements of the performance of a real set of actors, right down to subtle facial expressions. Computer artists then fill in all the details—the ultimate appearances of the characters as well as the environment. To us old-timers, this recalls an old animation technique called rotoscoping. There were a lot of animation purists who questioned whether painting art on top of reality wasn’t really a sort of cheat that results in an inferior artistic product. Well, this inferiority never slowed down Walt Disney, nor Ralph Bakshi; well, Walt Disney anyway. You can read about all this stuff elsewhere. If you are interested in the future of movies, you should read about it, because this film is only a crude beginning, a fundamental advancement in the technology of making movies. All clichés aside, this is undeniably a technically historic film.

So what does this all mean to you as you watch? The characters, drawn in a style that is clearly and intentionally from Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrations for his book (Van Allsburg also wrote and illustrated the book which became the movie Jumanji), are also recognizably limited as being the creation of a computer, but they are dramatically more realistic and life-like than ever before. This isn’t obvious from a single picture, nor even a snippet of motion as in a trailer, but is apparent only while watching the characters acting in a scene. There is a real physical presence that you perceive from the characters because there was a real physical performance that was the foundation for the animation. Impressive. It is so impressive that you may sometimes forget the story. My daughter, who is much too old to find elves frightening… found the elves frightening. They really aren’t intended to be frightening. She is 13 and was being funny, but this film is going to be a trip for small children in ways that we as adults can’t even begin to imagine. I think they will love it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

With this new digital technology you only really need one actor, provided you have a good one. There is no mistaking that Tom Hanks plays the role of the conductor on the train, but he also plays other roles which such effectiveness as to make Peter Sellers’ ghost jealous. Hanks could be playing anyone. Well, he couldn’t be the obnoxious kid who sounds exactly like Mandark from “Dexter’s Laboratory,” that is Eddie Deezen. As appropriate as that voice may be, it is clearly recognized as another character from another story, the only serious mistake that Zemeckis made anywhere in the film. Apart from that, I’ll leave you with the fun of guessing which characters are Hanks and which are not. The rest of the cast gives performances good enough to possibly be confused with Hanks, and you can’t get much higher praise than that.

The story, appropriately enough, is about faith and belief, a magical train that takes children to the North Pole to participate in the opening ceremonies of the X-mas holiday. The child who is the focus of the film is beginning to have doubts about the existence of Santa Claus. Is this all just a dream? To believe or not to believe, that is the question. The answer here is no less clichéd and contrived than all other X-mas films, but the metaphor is no less effective. The bell of imagination will ring in triumph, the oppressed will bravely lead the way, the poor will have presents after all, evil deeds are never so evil as to merit a lump of coal, and the hobo is a singin’ hobo, not a stabbin’ hobo.

As the film properly suggests, there may be more to belief in Santa Claus than what you can see, but in a film that makes such a point about looking realistic, isn’t that message just a bit ironic? Showing off has always been a key element in animated and “special-effect” films, but the charming, humorous, or beautifully whimsical can also be irritating. Of course, a kid’s film about Santa Claus is not exactly dramatic rocket science.

Yes, Virginia, 1111010100001011010110101010110101101011010011…

—Steven Harding

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

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Itís worth a matinee ticket.

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Check out the video from the library, if you must.

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