Thursday, November 24, 2005

Film Review - The Polar Express

Computer animation has made monumental leaps and bounds in the short few years it has come into existence starting with the first computer generated animated film ever, Toy Story, in 1995. Since that time, out of the twenty-one computer generated feature film that have been released, only a slim six have failed to pass the one-hundred million dollar mark at the domestic box office. Box office gravy aside, technology which has been required to achieve these astonishing effects has made exceptional progress as well. Although Pixar Animation Studios who first pioneered the new genre has captured a majority of the headlines in this regard, Warner Brothers can lay claim to being the first to use the new technique called Performance Capture which translates the movements and expressions of performers like Tom Hanks into the three-dimensional world of The Polar Express. However, in spite of these heralding achievements, story and character development have been made to suffer at the expense of bigger and better special effects. This has been nearly the case with every single major studio release with the only notable exception being, ironically, Pixar Animation Studios.

The story for The Polar Express, or lack thereof, is easily one of the most incontestable flaws throughout the film. With such cutting-edge animation technology at their disposure, Hanks and Zemeckis could have at the very least conceived a more succinct plotline to accompany it with then what is present now. That being said, praise for the animated feature film should be focused more on its dazzling special effects and less on the picture as a whole given its rather lethargic storyline. Doing otherwise would be like awarding the talented folks at Pixar Animation Studios for Toy Story, the first completely computer-animated feature film, without the buddy comedy story element which made it all the more memorable in cinematic history.

Celebrated actor Tom Hanks takes on a majority of the roles in The Polar Express including the protagonist of the picture, Hero Boy, a young boy who has lost his Christmas spirit and goes on a magical journey to the North Pole gain it once more. However, not all of his characters are as clearly defined as that. The hobo, for example, is never fully clarified. It can be assumed that he is indeed a ghost as he himself alludes to in the film but his reason for being on the Polar Express in the first place is never explained. Is he a good guy? If so why does he then insist on tormenting Hero Boy over the loss of his Christmas spirit? If he is evil then why does he help him at ‘critical’ junctures in the journey? This does nothing but bewilder the audience.

Overall, The Polar Express, albeit an unprecedented achievement in the advancement of computer generated animation with its exquisite special effects and breathtaking backdrops, is at best a sub par family feature and at worst barely even a mediocre holiday ‘classic’ with no true sense of story or meaning.

The film’s running time which stands at a lengthy – for an animated film that is – one-hundred and nine minutes is at least thirty or forty minutes longer then is necessary. There are a prevalent amount of ‘obstacles’ Hero Boy must overcome in order to reach the North Pole that in reality are nothing more then overemphasized theme park-like thrill elements without a single quality of peril or suspense about them that would make them the least bit exhilarating. A majority of these ‘thrill’ sequences are back-to-back which gives the audience the sense that they are in fact watching the very same basic animation sequence in a continuous loop for a little over half a hour. This is the sort of thing that will make even those with the strongest constitutions a wee bit delirious to say the least.

Upon examination of the ‘lucky’ children who board The Polar Express bound for the North Pole, it is a surprise to see that not every single grown-up who comes out of a screening of the film has the ‘Christmas spirit’ entirely drained from them. These brats, a term which is not used loosely in this context mind you, are strikingly stuck-up and self-centered. Rather then receiving their just deserts for their self-indulgent behavior as any right-minded adult would expect, they are instead rewarded with presents and treats from Santa Claus himself. Know-It-All whose shrill voice alone marks him alongside Dobby the house-elf (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and Jar-Jar Binks (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace) as one of the most caustic computer-animated characters in recent memory has the word ‘learn’ cut into his golden ticket. Many parents however would rather go with the straight ‘back of the hand’ technique and tell him to ‘shut up’ instead of handing him the responsibility of ‘learning’ to control himself. It sends a clearer message and is known to be much more effective then the alternative.

Regretfully there are a few musical numbers in The Polar Express – because it just would not be a family film without them – but none of them are exceptionally memorable in the long run however. Not a single song, with the only notable exception being the closing-credit version of ‘Believe’, will stand out in your mind as the credits begin to roll nor will you find yourself humming any of them unconsciously as you stroll back to your car from the movie theatre. Zemeckis may have foreseen this complication and this is why he included so few of them as there are. He should feel so bad though. Walt Disney Feature Animation, once renowned for its enchanting animated musical numbers, has had this very same dilemma for years now. At least The Polar Express will have ample company in this regard, if that is any consolation at all.

And finally, the filmmakers essentially shoot themselves in the foot with the conclusion. By having Santa Claus return the sleigh bell Hero Boy lost at the North Pole due to the hole in his robe pocket at the end of the film, they make themselves out to be hypocrites in regards to their message that believing is not always seeing. The script would have been better off had they left the audience with the open-ended question of whether it was all just a dream or not rather then giving them a definitive resolution. Despite these relative defects, The Polar Express is in no way entirely intolerable. It is best however to leave for the holiday season only and even then it is not something that should circumvent the viewing authority of far superior Christmas classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street or even A Christmas Story this holiday season.

My Rating: **** out of 5 (Grade: B-)