*The Polar Express(G)
The Polar Express, a Christmas classic for the wired generation, packs a lot of bang for the holiday moviegoing buck. Breathtaking state-of-the-art animation combined with a fast-paced storyline make for dazzling eye candy, and Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis craft a worthy homage to the Christmas movie genre while updating it for the new millennium.
Shot in motion capture, a new type of computer animation that accurately captures actors' facial expressions and movements, the film does what few Christmas movies have done before, combining winter-wonderland fantasy and realistic human characters. The movie recreates a well-loved children's book by Chris Van Allsburg by taking the story and art and electrocuting them with 10 million watts of computer wizardry.
The film opens on a snowy Christmas Eve in the bedroom of a young boy (Tom Hanks) who pretends to sleep. The boy doubts Santa Claus exists, and he silently waits to ambush his parents as they put presents under the tree. In his drawer lies a dossier of documents that seemingly disprove St. Nick's existence: newspaper clippings about shopping mall Santa labor woes, a magazine article titled "The Discovery," and so on. He even spots a Santa Claus hat tucked in his father's belt, fuelling his suspicions.
Before he can catch his well-meaning parents red-handed, the boy drifts off to sleep. Moments later, he finds himself outside his house standing in the snow -- the winter air filled with the blinding light and thunderous chug-chug-chug of an oncoming steam train. The train pulls to a halt and a conductor (Tom Hanks) tells the boy to step aboard.
"Well, you coming?" the conductor asks.
"Where?" the boy asks.
"Why to the North Pole, of course," the conductor chuckles. Light pours from within the vintage train. The boy hesitates, but as the train pulls away he leaps aboard. Inside he finds other children, including a young girl who chronically doubts herself and a poor boy who has never known a happy Christmas. Together they race to Santa's city, a journey filled with thrills and chills. The train journey transforms into a roller-coaster ride through shimmering computer-generated realms.
While The Polar Express surely is a revolutionary step forward in computer-animated moviemaking, it should be remembered that Christmas movies and animation go way back. Who could forget such stop-action animation classics as Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town (1970). Those shopworn relics still run on television every year. The Polar Express is merely the latest, and most technologically breathtaking, in a long tradition of animated Christmas movies. This makes sense, as animation lends itself much more easily to creating winter wonderlands than live-action movies. This will be the film that takes Christmas specials into a whole new era.
Tim Burton gave us a glimpse of the future in 1993's A Nightmare Before Christmas, with its stunning animation. But that film strayed too far from the traditional themes of Christmas. The Polar Express does not shy away from standard Christmas special themes -- who's been naughty and nice, what's really up there at the North Pole and the big question: Does Santa Claus really exist? It also injects some Burton-esque creepiness along the way: a cackling ghost man (Hanks) who freeloads a ride on top of the train and sinister puppets dangling in one of the cars. This, along with the adrenaline-rush roller-coaster scenes, will ensure that children of all ages -- and many adults -- will think the movie is cool. And even cooler: The Polar Express can be seen in three dimensions at an IMAX theater near you.
-- Dan Wilcock
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark IMAX, Tinseltown