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May 12, 2006 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Film | May 12, 2006 |


You’re probably going to hear a lot about the new, revolutionary process called “performance capture,” used create Robert Zemekis’ animated feature, The Polar Express. At a cost of some $86 million, the process requires that the film’s actors wear black suits covered by special dots that allow cameras and computers to track their movements and expressions, which are then digitized, loaded into computers, and plugged into an animated world.

Why Hollywood is heralding this new process as a breakthrough in CGI animation, however, is beyond me. The fact of the matter is, it’s quite similar to a process the video game world has been using for some time now to simulate the movements of your favorite football player cutting up field. And for what it’s worth, I’d watch a computer simulated Madden 2004 football game between the Bengals and the hapless Dolphins before I’d again subject myself to the overblown, X-masploitation of The Polar Express.

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t hate Polar Express based solely upon the stilted, lackluster animation. No sir. There is a lot more to dislike about this garish Tom Hanks extravaganza, based on the Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book. Take, for instance, that Zemekis has forced the 29-page picture book into a full 92-minute feature-length film, which is a bit like stretching 6 hairs into a healthy comb over. That is to say, it looks like a full-length film from a distance, but up close, it’s nothing but a mangy, dandruff-ridden bald spot.

The storyline is familiar to anyone who has read the book. The night before Christmas, our Hero Boy (voiced as an adult by Tom Hanks, and as a child, by Daryl Sabara) is skeptical about the existence of Santa Claus until he is awoken by a train outside his window, conducted by none-other-than-the-voice-of-Tom-Hanks. Like its source material, the train then takes the child to the North Pole to meet Santa, where he is given the first gift of the season, which miraculously renews his faith in Christmas (apparently, the fact that a train could pull up alongside his house and take him to the North Pole in a matter of minutes was unconvincing).

In the film version, however, our Hero is joined by Poor Kid (Peter Scolari), so Zemekis can make a bungling attempt to explore the socio-economic issues that surround Christmas, namely why Poor Kid had never received a Christmas gift heretofore, which either has something to do with his parent’s inability to buy the unfortunate child a present, or his disbelief in Santa Claus — a circular belief rightly founded upon never having received a damn Christmas gift. The Poor Kid, of course, sits by himself in the caboose throughout most of the trip, presumably in an effort not to burden the wealthier children with reminders of the underprivileged, on this, of all days, Christmas.

In addition to the hundreds of other children who dare to disobey their parents’ warnings and get on a stranger’s train, Hero Boy is joined by Know-it-all-Boy (Eddie Deeson) — an obnoxious kid who is supposed to provide comic relief, but who is mostly just obnoxious — and Hero Girl (Nona Gaye), an African-American girl who loses her golden ticket and is forced briefly to operate the train, which nearly results in the catastrophic death of hundreds of disbelievers on the very day before Christmas. Hero Girl evidently is there to provide the film with some racial diversity, which I’m all for; unfortunately, the animators were unable to perfect the African-American skin tone, so the token black girl looks as though she has just escaped a blazing inferno that probably destroyed her parent’s home.

Screenwriter William Broyles, Jr., provides a wealth of other diversions as the children make their way to the North Pole, including a Hobo ghost (Tom Hanks, again) who saves the day by pulling Hero Boy back onto the train before he plummets to his demise (a critical lesson to children who ignore the plight of panhandlers: drop a quarter, and someday, a homeless man might just save your ass), and a roller coaster train ride through the mountains that may just inspire your child to puke up the $20 bag of popcorn you just bought.

Once the children finally arrive at the North Pole, the main characters’ quest to find their gifts before they are delivered to their homes results in an “enchanting” journey through the Willy-Wonkaesque gift-wrap facility; unfortunately, the children of The Polar Express do not befall the same fate as the overzealous Veruca Salt. Alas, they live long enough to meet Santa Claus face-to-face and hear an elfin version of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler perform the godawful “Rockin’ On Top of the World.”

If I sound harsh, it’s because The Polar Express, like the live-action The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat before it, represents a shoddily-made, big-budget, blatant attempt to cash in on the spirit of Christmas. The fact of the matter is, the so-called magic of The Polar Express is a badly manufactured distillation of the real thing, which hijacks traditional Christmas music in a cynical effort to recreate the authenticity of the holidays. Unfortunately, the classic Christmas tunes give one the feeling of being trapped in a department store in early November as Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and Irving Berlin crooningly remind us to buy something really expensive for our loved ones lest they stop loving us.

Christopher Van Allburg’s The Polar Express is a sweet, subtle little story about believing in the magic of Christmas. The Hollywood version — in which Hero Boy recites the mantra “I Believe” more times than the Red Sox Nation — has all the subtlety of a “Yankees Suck!” chant, and is about as charming. I have no doubt that toddlers all over America will probably love The Polar Express, but then again, most of them would rather play with the shiny ribbon that adorns their gifts than the $200 Tonka truck inside, which is to say their standards for entertainment aren’t exactly high. Indeed, this movie, in its vain attempt to spread half-baked Christmas cheer, is guilty of the very cynicism it’s intended to counteract. Don’t fall for it, folks. Do yourself a favor — save yourself from this vapid, exploitative dreck and read your children the book instead.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

The Polar Express / Dustin Rowles

Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()




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