Computer Train to the North Pole
You won't find many surprises in The Polar Express, and I make that statement fully aware of its reportedly novel motion-capture-based animation presented in feature-length form. Frankly, this presentation brings up more questions than answers. Why animate if you're trying to make people look real? Why do the characters look like something caught in the limbo between realism and computer-generated coldness? And why does none of this feel new and exciting?
Most of these questions were answered when Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within came out a few years ago. Technically, it was a lovely piece of work, but at the same time it exposed the limitations of such work, i.e., the use of computer animation to simulate live human performances. The main unanswered question turned out to be: what is the point? It alienates two sectors of the film industry -- live actors, who find they could be disregarded in favor of a "perfectly controlled" performance; and animators, whose more abstract realizations of imagination could be disregarded in favor of "animated realism." At the same time, the ground it opens up sprouts nothing unique -- again, it feels like limbo, lacking warmth and subduing any attempt at animated style.
The Polar Express doesn't escape this handicap. Its characters look human and have carefully composed realistic expressions, but they lack weight, as cg-characters in realistic environments are wont to be. They're also peculiar in that a majority of them are played by Tom Hanks -- he's either the motion-capture model or the voice for several characters, and often he's both. And because Hanks's expressions, movements, and voice are so familiar these days after so many movies, the characters' embodiments of his traits feel a little unsettling at times.
What The Polar Express does have over Final Fantasy is an appealing story. It's based on a popular children's book which tells a magical tale of how a boy who is beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus is taken on a journey to reinstate his belief. As handled by director Robert Zemeckis, the movie emphasizes adventure, humor, and wonder as it tugs on the heartstrings with veteran skill. The original story is conspicuously padded with events to fill out the running time, which detracts a bit from its focus, as do an abundance of winking asides and inside jokes that Zemeckis seems to have sprinkled about with devil-may-care spiritedness. Overall, though, the movie is the work of a team with members in excellent control of their crafts.
Nevertheless, I still wonder why this film had to be done the way it was. The Polar Express could just as easily have been a marvelous 2-D animated film; or a 3-D one with its own look and feel, like The Incredibles. The experiment of trying to make animation look more lifelike actually makes everything feel more lifeless. We can see it trying and not quite "getting it." But, again, why "get it" when you've got real life at your disposal? The Polar Express is good work for the sake of good work -- it delivers something I'll readily admit is enjoyable, but not easily embraceable.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "G" for general audiences.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.