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An Early Peek at "The Polar Express"

An Early Peek at "The Polar Express"

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Well JHM readers,

I'm back! Back from California (finally got a tan after 2 years) and back with another story, and review. So today, I'll be frank about going from the nice sunny weather of San Diego, to the cold but enchanting weather of the North Pole. Because right after I got off the plane, it was a hop skip and a jump to the Grand Finale of the 40th Chicago Int. Film Festival. And their feature film was 'The Polar Express.' Now this wouldn't have been a big deal, but the fact that Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis were going to be in attendance. And, when you hear that Bob Z is coming to town (actually, he's a Chicagoan from long past himself), not even a time paradox was gonna keep me.

A little background first: I'm a huge fan of Robert Zemeckis' films. I was hooked on 'Back to the Future before I hit 1st grade, and 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' cemented my love of his films. Of course, I became enchanted with 'Forrest Gump,' 'Contact,' and his two more recent films: 'What Lies Beneath' and 'Cast Away.' But his latest film, would be a major departure. A G-rated venture, Zemeckis was relying on motion-capture technology for all his characters, including facial capture that made some people on animationnation comment on the eerie look of Tom Hanks' train conductor. So I figured I'd give this a look, and report to the front lines.

After braving the lines at the Cadillac Theatre (and confiscating my camera for the after-party), I went to my seat, 2 rows back from the stage. Finally, the lights dimmed and out strolled the head of the Film Festival. Good-looking guy, considering he had started this 40 years ago. After him, came Mayor Daley's wife, to tell us of her love of the book 'The Polar Express.' Soon, she gave up the stage as the crowd roared with delight as Tom Hanks took the stage. Hanks gave a few funny one-liners, but his line of 'What Paris is to Euopre, Chicago is to the United States' brought on thunderous applause (hey, we mid-westerners love to be acknowledged). Hanks then told us an interesting story, about how Bob Z had gone from Chicago's South Side to USC film school:

Apparently, Young Zemeckis had been into film at a young age, but had no way of knowing how to break into it. One night, he was watching the 'Tonight Show' with Johnny Carson in his parent's Rec Room ('I have no idea what a Rec Room is,' commented Hanks), and Johnny Carson's guest was Jerry Lewis. When Carson asked Lewis what he was up to, Lewis replied that he was teaching a seminar at USC Film School. At this, Robert Zemeckis sat bolt upright at said: "You mean there's such a thing as a FILM SCHOOL!?'

This was a very insightful look into Zemeckis (since there's no actual biography on him to read, and as Jim pointed out in his review on 'The Films of Robert Zemeckis,' there isn't even an ACCURATE biography yet). After this, we were treated to clips of Zemeckis' films from 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' to 'The Polar Express.' With this conclusion, Zemeckis walked out on stage. Myself and several others instantly bolted from our seats for a standing ovation/
Zemeckis then corrected Tom's story: it wasn't a Rec Room, it was a basement. But then, basements aren't commonplace in California. Zemeckis thanked Hanks, and made mention to his family, many of whom were in the audience, before the head of the Film Festival presented him with the Film Festival's Career Achivement Award (as he was too young for a Lifetime Achievement Award). Before leaving the state for the film to begin, Hanks chimed in "It's October 21, let's get into the Christmas Spirit.' And so, began Zemeckis' 13th Feature film.

The Review

I'm sure that many of us remember the good old days of our childhood. For me, I'm still looking into children's picture books, for inspiration and ideas. Years after I was out of grade school, my sister Stacey got into some of the books of Chris Van Allsburg, including Jumanji, and The Polar Express. These two are some of her favorite picture books, and have great use of technique, along with a simple story to guide those reading the book.
'Jumanji' had been made into a feature film almost 9 years ago, directed by Joe Johnston (The Rocketter, October Sky), the film loosely followed the 32-page book, sending the adventures of two kids into the path of two former Jumanji players, as their town is soon invaded by killer mosquitos, game hunters, and stampeding animals. Being a former member of the visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, Johnston had a good grasp upon the effects, but the story suffered.

Along with Jumanji being on my mind going into seeing this film, were the Brian Grazer-produced 'Cat in the Hat' and 'The Grinch.' These two films were chastised by critics and some who remembered these books with a sense of innocense, that was now replaced with crude jokes involving mistletoe and spaying and neutering (8 neutering jokes in 'Cat in the Hat' were 8 jokes too many). These three films were in my mind as I sat at the Cadillac theatre as the film began.

Zemeckis opens in the boy's bedroom, just as Allsburg's does, including his first full paragraph, with only one slight word change. So far, so good. But in the course of the next 10 minutes, it becomes apparent that our 'Hero Boy' (as he's called in the credits), is not as faithful to Mr C as the book. Apparently, he's beginning to have doubts. We hear his sister in the next room, talking about what he's been thinking. This boy's just one step away from being that wet blanket in kindergarten who tells you 'there's no such thing as Santa Claus.'

And then, the room shakes, the lights stream through the window, and through the smoke (like the DeLorean's reveal in Back to the Future), we see the Steam Locomotive. As the boy looks, he is then greeted by the Conductor (acted and voiced by Hanks). There seems to be no actual criteria for who is chosen to come on the Polar Express, but there are a couple of things our boy's done that have caused some at the North Pole grave concern: no picture with the department store Santa, no letter received this year and-yikes!-he had his sister put out the cookies and milk, instead of doing it together. Moreso out of curiousity, our lead boards the train, where he meets several other children, including a little girl (voiced and performed by Nona Gaye), and Know-it-All (Zemeckis veteran Eddie Deezen), who will talk your ear off more than anything. From the gales of laughter I heard from the kids, I'd say Know-it-All is proof that Eddie Deezen has won over the recent generation of kids.

As his journey continues, our young boy will also meet a mysterious hobo, encounter a herd of Caribou, and even has a front row seat as the train barrels across a frozen patch of ice.

Overall, Zemeckis manages to do much less meddling with the material than other picture book-to-movie transitions. All the major set pieces are there. We don't have some huge added backstory. It's in the introduction of all the other characters on The Polar Express that Zemeckis has chosen to open the palette a bit.

Probably one of the biggest concerns by many, is that the film is trying for almost photo-realistic characters. We're dealing with motion capture here, the likes of which could be compared to 2001's 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.' Here, it works a little smoother, but it still feels a bit 'mechanically smooth' at some times. The interaction between characters also felt a bit lacking, interaction being putting hands on shoulders, etc. As well, the textures are not fully photo-realistic, they're off just a bit, to try and match the pastel quality of the illustrations. I think half-way through the film, I stopped analyzing the film and started to get into the plot.

Of interest as well, is that adult performers are performing the actions of the children. Hanks, Gaye & Deezen mainly did their movements with oversized props, and their data was fed into the kids onscreen. Also, you can see little facial traits, which proves how well the facial tracking system works. At one point, the boy smiles as he pulls the train's whistle, and you can clearly see Hank's half-smile light up his face.

'The Polar Express' also marks the first Zemeckis film to feature musical numbers. When the children are served hot chocolate, a chorus line begins, with Hanks chiming in, along with acrobatic chefs and servers. The number is pretty elaborate, but due to my position, the music seemed a bit garbled. One that got in my head was a number that featured a children's choir and Hanks singing about the Polar Express, it's got a nice driving rhythm.

Overall, The Polar Express isn't the greatest Zemeckis film, but it is in no way the worst. It's a film that manages to be a children's film, but also doesn't really make the audience feel like babies, like some Hollywood G-rated fare. This definitely feels like a better choice than 'Surviving Christmas' or 'Christmas with the Kranks.' My big fear is that this film is going to be released during the second week of 'The Incredibles,' and the humanistic characters will probably turn some away. All I can say is, there's gonna be a marginal audience of those who saw 'The Grudge' going to see this film (caught three kids today heckling the poster for this film).

Overall, The film will charm those who read the book, and for those who worry about favorite moments getting iced over, fear not. But if you get the chance, see this film in a Dome IMAX when the big-screen theatres release it. Some sequences half-way through have the kind of vertigo feel like the scene in 'Aladdin' when the carpet just spirals down several hundred feet.

Back to the Cadillac Theatre

After the film, I got a chance to attend the Afterparty for the festival. The stage was cleared up, and the hors'doeuvres and free spirits flowed freely. Giant banners were strung up, everywhere. I was looking for Hanks and Zemeckis. I overheard one person say that once the film started, Hanks had to take off for L.A. But nearby, I finally spotted Robert Zemeckis. Unfortunately, he was surrounded by people wanting to shake his hand and get his autograph. Luckily, I managed to slip him my DVD covers for 'Back to the Future' and 'Forrest Gump,' and offer my thanks to him, before he had to exit out the side door. I finally found a seat and began talking to an older woman. Soon, it became apparent that I was sitting next to Bob Z's Mom! I told her a bit how her son had influenced my love of films, before she had to leave as well.

Overall, it was an interesting way to end my vacation from work. I saw 'The Incredibles' before I left, and saw 'The Polar Express' before I returned to work. I hope this has given you an insight into the film, but before I go, I'm gonna pass off a little tidbit about a Bob Z film that I heard a couple years ago from Richard LeParmentier: who played General Motti in 'Star Wars' (or as he's known: The guy who was choked by Darth Vader), and Lieutenant Santino in 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit.' When Richard was in town for Chicago's Comic-Con, I began talking to him about his role in 'Roger,' and Richard told me how Jeffrey K had some trepidations about some language in the film (it must have been a good story, because the guy who played Boba Fett was listening in). Apparently, after Eddie wakes up with Santino standing next to him, the original line was 'Jesus, Eddie, if you needed money so bad, why didn't you come to me?' But when Jeff K heard that, he said: Wait a minute, this is a Disney film, he can't say that! So, the line was looped, and 'Jesus Eddie' became 'Gee whiz Eddie.'

And that's my prattling on Bob Z and his films...for now. I plan to return with some reviews of his films on DVD (including the recently released 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand').

Michael Howe

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