Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Polar Express
Review by Sombrero Grande

Q. What does the schizophrenic’s Christmas card say?
A. “Do you hear what I hear?”

The Polar Express is a schizophrenic film. On the one hand, it tries to be a heartfelt, feel-good Christmas story. On the other hand, it also tries to be a hair-raising adventure thriller for kids. The film accomplishes the latter much better than the former.

Thanks to CGI, the thrills that The Polar Express offers up are second to no other G-rated film out there. The ability to create realistic-looking details helps ground the action when the scripting pushes it into the realm of the unbelievable. For instance, when the Polar Express is skidding along an iced-over section of track and a humble pin serves as catalyst to break the ice, sending an ominous crack barreling towards the train, the look of the water splashing forth and the intricate, aged details of the speeding locomotive help give the scene some semblance to tangible danger. There are times when the ride The Polar Express offers up can be quite fun. Sure it may be silly, childish fun, but hey, fun is fun. CGI is the perfect medium to capture the action of racing down a network of present chute slides at the North Pole or bounding up and down steep roller coaster hills on the momentarily out-of-control titicular train.

Where the CGI falters is in the depiction of the films’ characters. I understand why, even after the disastrous failure of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the filmmakers chose to attempt photo-realistic CGI humans (to emulate the look of the storybook’s illustrations), but they still don’t work. Yes, as other reviews have stated, pretty much every frame of the film looks painterly, but that isn’t necessarily a connecting feature to the audience. At times, the humans DO feel a little bit real (mostly when they’re off in the distance and greatly helped by motion-capture movement synchronization), but for the most part, there’s a clear and cold distance that pushes the characters away, mostly when they’re shown up close, “emoting” or--*shudder*--singing. The moment two of the “children” started belting out a bland tune, I suddenly didn’t care about the child-like glee of the action scenes that came before; I wanted off the train.

The story has more problems than just being schizophrenic; the ending is so predictable and sappy that small toddlers in the audience were shouting, “it’s the bell!” a whole scene before it was actually revealed to be “the bell.” (Side note: WHY do parents allow their children to shout during a movie? If your children are too young/immature to shut the Hell up during a movie, LEAVE THEM AT HOME.)

Meeting Santa (voiced, like a majority of characters in the film, by Tom Hanks) is a sad, sad climax. First off, Tom Hanks IS a phenomenal actor, and as several of the other characters in The Polar Express he does fairly well, but his portrayal of old Saint Nick is quite frankly pathetic. He merely lowers his normal voice as if reading half-asleep from a storybook and brings no dimension whatsoever to the surprisingly svelte Santa. Not only is Santa depicted as nontraditionally slim, but he’s also far from “a right jolly old elf” being stoic and hardly ever cracking a smile. Of course, part of the disappointment I felt with regard to Hanks’ performance could stem largely from the fact that this was the nth time I was hearing his voice emanating from yet another character. WHY was he cast in so many roles? Oh, and WHY is there a Steven Tyler elf?

Eddie Deezen is a good character voice-over actor, but is painfully miscast in this film as a child simply known as “Know-It-All.” If the sterile CGI animation of his character’s mouth wasn’t distancing enough, the moment his voice pours out of it creates an immediate barrier to accepting the character as a child. The writing doesn’t help any, either; kids in The Polar Express talk like adults writing for kids.

When the main character receives the aforementioned bell at the end of the film, it’s wrapped in the same manner as the “last” present seen earlier at the North Pole. So are we supposed to believe that Santa found the bell on the seat of his sleigh and then went back to the North Pole to get it wrapped? The film asks us to believe in a lot of things, but it doesn’t make it easy with slip-ups like this.

While the thrilling elements help to create a real “adventure” in traveling to the North Pole, the trip hardly seems worthwhile. While The Polar Express is not a complete waste of time, I choose not to spend any of my remaining time on this Earth sitting through it again. The success of any good Christmas story lies in how much “heart” the film has. The “heart” in The Polar Express ends up being much like the film’s CGI humans: you get rare glimpses of an honest “realness” from time to time but mostly you’re in for long stretches of meticulously crafted yet obviously fake simulation. For a better Christmas movie with honest heart, why not check out Elf or, once the kids are away, Bad Santa.


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