Polar Express

Polar Express

Polar Express

directed by Robert Zemeckis

starring Tom Hanks, Nona Gaye

Warner Brothers and Castle Rock

Sometimes it’s worth seeing a movie just for its eye candy value. Polar Express is a perfect example — it’s heartwarming, a bit sappy, safe for the whole family, and a completely astonishing step forward in computer animation.

First, the plot synopsis: Young Hero Boy (Hanks, digitally re-mastered to remove about 40 years) is right on the verge of losing his faith in Santa. The steam train Polar Express pulls up in his front yard, and he’s invited to jump on by the Conductor and spirit guide (Hanks, with his hair digitally removed). Along with a dozen other children with no names and weak faith, they take a rollercoaster ride to the North Pole, where Santa gives Hero Boy a bell, and restores his faith. Got that? Good, I was padding.

Now, once you simply accept the plot is slightly less complicated than a bedtime story for a four-year-old, you can let go and have some fun. Hanks fills most of the roles in the film, and with the power of high tech animation, he can outdo Peter Sellers. Beside the Hero Boy and the Conductor, he’s the Boy’s Father, Santa, and a Hobo who looks like Tom Waits after half a bottle of Jack. There’s even a cameo by Steven Tyler, dried out and ready to rock some more.

Watching the film, I kept thinking – “their hair is PERFECT!” Silly as this might sound, this film really nails the hair and cloth movements, two of the most difficult to render features. The credits have almost a full screen of people who worked on just that problem. And every other aspect of human motion is captured about as well as I’ve seen. The only weakness was some slight, hard to pin down oddities in Hero Girl’s (Gaye) expression and eye motion.

As the script progresses, it becomes more and more surreal, as if the writers got a few eggnogs inside of themselves, and agreed any idea was worth a shot. There are three major roller coaster sequences with the train, all of which could easily become major theme park attractions by summer if this flick sells tickets. At the North Pole, the kids get lost in a monstrous shipping and packing center (Think of the FedEx depot in Memphis, but with colored paper.). It’s hard to say what’s necessary to the plot, and what’s gratuitous, but the hydrogen dual-keeled blimp hauling up the big bag of presents was a bit weird. In the grand climax, all the elves come out to see Santa and their hard work off in the big town plaza of North Pole City. North Pole City looks a LOT like Main Street USA at Disney, and the thousands of red clad elves made me think of Gay Days for some reason.

The best sequence in the whole film comes early on, as the Hot Chocolate brigade comes out tap dancing and back flipping to bring the children refreshments. Some of this stuff must have had live actors lurking somewhere, as there is Stunt Coordinator listed. Some of the is stuff could only be done digitally, and some MUST have been shot live, but the transitions are so subtle it will be years before any of us are sharp enough to tell ink from digits.

Take the older kids, there are some scary scenes, and remember, if you’re going to be a kid again, don’t sit next to me on the airplane.

Polar Express Movie: polarexpressmovie.warnerbros.com

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