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Monday, November 15, 2004

The Polar Express review

Every ten years or so Robert Zemeckis comes out of hiding and does something that makes you go "Wow!" In 1985 it was the first Back to the Future flick, followed up nine years later by Forrest Gump (maybe one of the most perfect movies ever). So what's Zemeckis got to show us in 2004, especially now that he's re-teamed up with Tom Hanks? Well, it depends...

There are two ways to watch The Polar Express: as a wide-eyed seven-year old kid or as a rationale and "wiser" adult, and the choice is going to shape how you feel when you walk away from the theater. If you don't want to be set up for potential letdown, go in as the kid. Or at least – at risk of giving away the theme of the movie – have a little faith.

The Polar Express is a visual feast and assault on the senses that shreds the envelope that used to hold everything possible with computer-generated animation. It also breaks new ground on how the virtual camera is used. In that respect it's sorta the CGI-equivalent to Citizen Kane, when Orson Welles pioneered striking new camera angles that conveyed the story as much as the actual acting did. I know that juxtaposition of Zemeckis with Welles is going to blow some people’s minds, but I'm serious: there are things in The Polar Express that to the best of my knowledge haven’t been done before in terms of computer cinematography.

But the strength of that was likely an unintended byproduct of the REAL achievement: the ultra-photo-realistic computer rendering. Tom Hanks plays six different characters in The Polar Express, having to endure countless hours of acting before motion-capture cameras with dozens of tiny computer-trackable balls glued to his face to get every nuance of his expressions. Intellectually I knew that but when faced with the actual experience: that was Tom Hanks – the REAL Tom Hanks – onscreen, not a digital doppleganger. It sure as heck doesn't look fake. Very little does look synthetic: at the very least something or a person (the main girl character easily comes to mind 'cuz her face seemed almost fish-frozen at times, like they couldn't get her expressions to work quite right) is only minimally artificial... but the onslaught of vividness around those instances make them pretty forgivable. See the kid at the beginning of the movie? Try and believe that he's NOT a real boy. Sure fooled the heck out of my wife and her parents when we saw the movie two days ago.

All of these and more makes The Polar Express work as I believe Zemeckis intended it to be: a living, breathing illustrated children's storybook (a living, breathing adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's original book, anyway). To that end it succeeds wildly, and I tend to believe that in years to come this will be a classic Christmas movie. The real problem comes in when you try to enjoy this movie on the level of most adults and in that respect, it's a little lacking of things. The plot could do with some beefing-up and there is very little in the way of character development: we aren't even told the names of the boy who first gets on the train or of the girl he befriends (voiced by Nona Gaye from The Matrix sequels). It would have been nice to know something a little more about the train and its crew (including two roles – Smokey and Steamer – that were voiced by Michael Jeter just before he passed away) and without that the whole enterprise seems too surreal: when you think about it for awhile the Polar Express seems like a "train of damned souls" from some 1950s EC Comics book.

When the train arrives at the North Pole we are treated to a vast megalopolis of elven bureaucracy... but there was something missing from its personality a bit, like instead of the focus being on Christmas it's on Santa Claus. That was kinda creepy also: watching millions of elves rallying to fix their gaze on Santa was too much like Triumph of the Will with a Perry Como soundtrack. Still, it was pretty fun to discover how it is that Santa knows who is naughty and nice, with a system that would have made George Orwell beam with pride.

But for all the things that could be said about what it's wanting of, The Polar Express more than makes up for it in utter spell-binding awe. I'd love to see this in full glory on an IMAX screen someday. But even if you can't, The Polar Express is worth the gas and ticket money to check out this holiday season. And don't worry about some of the more negative reviews that have been floating around: you can hear the bell, even if they cannot.