The Polar Express
Review by Rosie & PandaCat
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Rating: Victory Star Destroyer
Based on the classic children's holiday tale by Chris Van Allsburg (also author of Jumanji), this adaptation to the big screen does not disappoint. The original is only 29 pages long and most of that space is taken up with beautiful, full-color full-page illustrations.
Director Zemeckis took his cues for the animation style of his film from those illustrations making them come to life on screen using a motion capture technique similar to that used to drive the CG Gollum in Lord of the Rings or JarJar from the Star Wars prequels. The actors wearing motion capture suits performed their movements on a special stage surrounded by cameras programmed to capture the movement of numerous reflecting points which became the data that generated the motion of the characters. Props and setpieces were actually handled by the actors, but things such as furniture were created out of chicken wire to minimize the obscuring of the reflectors and sightlines of the cameras.
The motion capture/animation technique allowed Tom Hanks to play five yes five! different characters in the film! When this required that he interact with himself playing another character, it was sometimes necessary to render his "mo-cap" performance on two differently scaled sets. Other characters were handled another way. Young actors were scanned as basic models for the children, but then their "mo-cap" performances (and final appearance) were accomplished by adult actors, the facial features being a blend of the younger and older performers.
The story itself needed to be padded out to make a feature length film, but the elements added the lonely boy's growing disillusionment with the whole idea of Santa Claus and Christmas, but his willingness to be reenchanted; the hobo ghost who comes to the rescue more than once; the comical engineer and fireman on the train don't detract from the tale.
Unlike all the unnecessary baggage laid on Jim Carrey's Grinch, this film remains true to the spirit of the original story while expanding to feature length. The dancing waiters and chefs who serve the hot chocolate on the train are reminiscent of the dancing dishes and silverware in Disney's Beauty and the Beast or the mid-film song and dance in Hello, Dolly!, and the original songs written for the film are very charming.
One other funny element was the big party scene in the square after Santa leaves for his magical journey around the world. An elf in striped tights and long black hair is the lead singer for the band playing the party music. He bears a striking resemblance to Elven Princess Arwen Undomiel from The Lord of the Rings. Well, if Liv can play an elf, why shouldn't dear old dad ...?
The only complaint the younger members of the audience lodged is that the part of the Conductor might have been played just a little too gruff for the likes of some very young viewers. The young 'uns had their hands over their ears when he got loud as he rebuked the children occasionally in the course of the story. However, the volume and gruffness were not out of place, and one can argue that it added to the contrasts necessary in the telling of the tale.
Of course, that will not stop me from adding this new holiday classic to my home collection when it comes out on DVD.
I know I still hear the magic Sleigh Bell ring ...
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