A while back I came up with a theory about Christmas movies.
It goes that every actor wants to do at least one film with
a Christmas theme or set during the Yule season at some point
in his or her career. The reason being that it doesn't matter
how good the film actually is, if it's "classic" material
or not, because every movie with anything to do with Christmas
in any way gets TV airtime every December. This theory is the only explanation
I've ever come up with for Jingle All the Way and Reindeer
The latest Christmas flick to come out this year (but not
the first, since Ben Affleck inflicted Surviving Christmas
on us) is The Polar Express. It is an adaptation
of a kids' novel and, as far as I'm aware, the first feature-length
all-CG Christmas movie. It also has some powerhouse talent behind
it, teaming up once more director Robert (Forest Gump)
Zemeckis and Tom ("Run, Forest, run!") Hanks. I'm
not sure which one talked the other one into doing the film,
but we all win from the pairing.
The story follows the adventures of a boy, named "Hero
Boy" in the credits. Our hero has just hit that age where
he's beginning to doubt the whole Claus/elf/presents deal. Then
on Christmas Eve, just as he's falling asleep, he hears a thunderous
noise as a steam locomotive rolls down his quiet snow-covered
street and stops. He runs outside and meets the conductor (Tom
Hanks, in one of several roles), who explains that the train
is the Polar Express, bound for the North Pole. Of course, Hero
Boy boards the train.
From there he makes friends with two other kids on the train,
Nona Gaye as "Hero Girl" and Peter Scolari as "Lonely
Boy." Am I the only person that hopes that Hanks and Scolari's
re-teaming here will lead to a Bosom Buddies reunion
flick? There is also a nerd kid (listed as "Know-It-All,"
voiced by Eddie Deezen) who is kind of annoying, and a host
of other nameless background tykes.
Anyway, the three main kids stick together through several
nerve-wracking adventures as the train makes its way North.
The kids also meet some other characters living on the train
as it rockets along the tracks, including a strange hobo also
voiced by Hanks.
Naturally, the thing that is going to astound people about
The Polar Express is the animation. It is the finest
CG animation I have ever seen. Cloth moves like cloth. The skin
on the characters is amazingly textured. The light and shadows
are incredible. Hair tufts and blows in the wind like the real
thing. In some places it's hard to believe that it's not real.
Thanks to the facial and motion capture tech, the characters
are really ALIVE in ways that I haven't seen since the Final
Fantasy flick, but even more so. Unlike Final Fantasy,
which seemed like a really long cut scene from a video game
with wooden (but highly detailed) puppets, these characters
exude real performances through the lifelike animation.
In fact, the animation is too good in places. In a lot of
scenes, especially in the early parts of the movie (the first
musical sequence in particular), it's even creepy and disturbing.
I know there's actually some sort of science thing about that,
how some things can be too human like for comfort, and this
film hits that mark in a few places. In other places, the animation
has a real storybook look and feel that just transports you
into the film. That's why it's so jarring when you hit the hyper-real
scenes. I think that if they had stuck with the storybook look
for the whole movie, it would have been magnificent, instead
of "merely" great.
As per the rule of all kids' movies, there are several musical
sequences. Most of them enhance the film, except for one near
the end that I'm going to spoil for you now. I'm going to do
so because you, my fellow genre fans, need to be warned so you're
not as jolted as I was.
The elves are celebrating and dancing, music swells, and we
pan to Steven Tyler — as an elf — singing some rock
Christmas tune. They captured his face perfectly, and it was
a shock that slapped me right out of the movie for a few moments.
Now, I like Aerosmith as much as the next guy, but Mr. Tyler's
vocals do not fit the tone of the movie at all. Up to this point
it had this kind of timeless/fifties feeling, and sticking him
in there puts the breaks on it. Plus, seeing Tyler in a cute
red felt suit with little elfin boots made it that much worse.
I pulled a point off the film just for that.
Overall, The Polar Express is a very good movie.
Some scenes might be too intense for younger kids, but for the
older ones it's a really fun roller-coaster ride. The direction
is great, the performances are well done, the animation is amazing,
the landscapes are gorgeous. When the characters reach the North
Pole, the film is pure magic. Everyone but die-hard Scrooges
will enjoy it. I don't know if it will ever attain "classic"
status like Miracle on 34th Street or It's a Wonderful Life, but you can count on seeing it on TV for many Decembers to come.