Freak Show 

'The Polar Express' mixes animation and real human movement, resulting in stiff, unintentional fright

While Pixar continues to expand and improve upon the world of CGI animation with their wonderful film The Incredibles (see review, this issue), Warner Bros. and director Robert Zemeckis have taken a tremendous misstep with The Polar Express, an unintentionally creepy movie. By employing a "motion capture" technique that allows filmmakers to put Tom Hanks' facial expressions and body movements into a little-boy character, the film creates a bizarre world where everything seems more than a little bit off.

Frankly put, this film doesn't look good. The movement of the characters is alternately slow, stiff and even spastic, with the enthusiasm of the voiceovers often not matching the body performances. It most reminds of the sloppy Lord of the Rings animated feature by Ralph Bakshi that used Rotoscoping (painting over human actors), which looked cheap and uninspired. The characters in Express have an eerie appearance, as if humans were infected with some sort of invasive acrylic paint virus, rendering them a part animated-part human monstrosity.

It's based upon the 1989 children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, a tale about Hero Boy (voice of Spy Kid Daryl Sabara, body performance by Hanks), who doubts the existence of Santa Claus. He awaits the sound of Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve, determined to debunk the myth once and for all. A train full of children pulls up outside his home with a shrill conductor (voice and body of Hanks) imploring him to get on board.

What follows is a hollow story tied together by a bunch of sequences where the train slides, falls and climbs along the way to the North Pole. While the first slipping and sliding sequence inspires a few "oooh-ahhs!" the device quickly becomes tedious, like watching a 3-D film without the glasses. (Apparently, the movie will be shown in a 3D-Imax version, which should amp up the thrills a little bit.)

The most irritating segment would be the clumsy hot chocolate musical number, where freakish dancing waiters bombard children with bountiful shots of cocoa. The waiters skip and jump around in a manner that is vaguely human yet far too fast and hard to follow, whilst the inappropriately sluggish conductor repeatedly (and musically) screams "We got it!" into his loudspeaker. The combination of frantic and woozy movements, along with the irritating soundtrack, results in something far more abrasive than enchanting.

There's a strange assemblage of child characters on board the train, from the man-boy Hanks hybrid, to the equally spooky Lonely Boy (voice of child actor Jimmy Bennett, facial and body movements by Hanks' Bosom Buddies costar Peter Scolari!). Worst of the bunch is Know-it-All, a young boy voiced by none other than 46-year-old actor Eddie Geezen, who played Eugene the Geek in Grease (1978). Hearing his familiar screech arising from a little kid is, to say the least, unsettling. This is the worst voice over choice since Breckin Meyer's whine emerged from Roberto Benigni's man-boy puppet aberration in Pinocchio.

Hanks plays myriad other characters, including an all-too-frightening Hobo Ghost that is supposed to be friendly, Hero Boy's Father, a Scrooge puppet and Santa himself. While Hanks' enthusiasm is apparent, the finished product has let him down.

In 2001, box office animated bomb Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within attempted to replicate human characteristics and fell short. The Polar Express, which cost upwards of $170 million, is even more the failure, a botched attempt at technological advancement. Had its makers followed Pixar's lead by simply enhancing and stylizing animated figures rather than trying to emulate humans, they might've delivered passable holiday fare. Instead, they've created an animated freakozoid.

More by Bob Grimm


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