|Warner Bros's The Polar Express, a story, which in book form has charmed millions with its lyrical prose and beautiful illustrations, displays a startling lack of that appeal in feature film form. Despite the jaw dropping animation of this film, true warmth missing from the characters that will make the endless snow drifts of the North Pole seem just that much colder. It's as if all the characters in the film have had their hearts turned to ice due to the freezing temperatures of a mid-West snowstorm. You know it isn't a good sign when your main character finally gets to meet Santa Claus and the revered holiday figure doesn't even crack a smile for the duration of the film.|
As the voice of a very unbelieving young boy (plus several other characters in the film), Tom Hanks brings an acute attention the character to the screen (as is usually expected with one of America's favorite actors), but despite the realism of the animation, the "Hero Boy" depicted so vividly by animators is hardly a dramatic entry into the story. In a narrative that might best be described as flat, there are few moments of joy in this film and viewers might be surprised what a lack of warm 'n fuzzies exist up there at the North Pole.
Put simply, the atmosphere of the film is almost sinister in its visuals and character depictions. Also playing the voice of the Conductor, Hanks is not the sort of person that would engender trust in any child forced to board his train to the North Pole. Why would the animators insert such a strong undercurrent of danger from the Hero Boy's fellow characters? The plot gives the Hero Boy and his friends plenty of problems to deal with without the added force of a menacing conductor and Santa Claus to deal with.
This is by no means a joyous journey. There are a few moments of Christmas magic when all of the children picked up by the Express finally meet Santa, but the end emotional result of the film will have audiences feeling cold. The strange presence of character malice throughout the film isn't something that would enchant the youngest of audiences, a demographic that might otherwise have been specifically targeted by the producers. As it is based on a children's book, one might think the filmmakers would be aiming to entertain those millions of young children that traditionally adore Santa and his minions. But this film might actually put fear into the hearts of very young viewers (not in plot devices, but in its scary characters).
But because of the flat as a pancake narrative, it's difficult to determine whether adults would appreciate the film either. Hanging somewhere in the middle of interest and beauty, this film's true appreciation will come from its animation. In the past decade, the progress made in creating realistic computer generated characters has come a million miles, with the recent animated film based on The Matrix series of movies coming in as the most memorable and Final Fantasy ranking as a pioneer in creating "realistic" CGI. The visuals for The Polar Express are likewise very impressive and if possible, animators have come even further in their ability to create deftly textured landscapes and characters.
With each successive CGI film put into the marketplace, more impressive computer power is available to animators for the rendering of these images and it is the increasing number of "parts" to each element in these films that makes the visuals more intense. It's like increasing the number of hairs on any given character's head. The more the hairs animated onto the character, the deeper the texture. The Polar Express takes its "numbers" to an incredible level, allowing those small imperfections in the characters' skin to shine through the gloss of traditional animation. Nobody's appearance is perfect and it is these small flaws, such as facial pores and small scars that increase the characters' realism.
Regarding the strange characters that fill this film, the person that will garner the most interest from viewers will be the "Hobo," a mysterious homeless man who wanders alone on the roof of the train. In his most interesting performance, Hanks gives this character the most enthusiasm regarding voice inflection and decibel strength. The Hobo's interactions with the Hero Boy are the most revealing regarding character development and are the one part of the narrative that will hold viewers' attention. During the rest of the film, however, viewers might just have to be content with admiring the impressive visuals afforded by the artists at Warner Bros.
In viewing this film, a viewer will have to make a very conscious choice to try and enjoy the story and characters whereas becoming engrossed in the visuals should come rather naturally. Putting several stunning visuals into various scenes like a train derailment on an icy moonlit lake and a musical number involving a large number of acrobatic waiters, there is never a drought of visual information given to the audience. But that more important element, the characters and their travails, fall to a distant second in their creativity with the Hero Boy and his Santa Claus, who hardly display genuine joy in their countenances. The Polar Express wins on some fronts (such as with the pure animation) but it is far from a film that entertains on all levels.
Review by Kelsey Wyatt.