A scene from soon to be released film, "The Polar Express," distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. It is one of eleven films which are eligible to be nominated for the best animated feature film Oscar, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced, Thursday, Nov.4,2004. Just three of them will be nominated.
AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures
People in Hollywood should never work with children or animals, W.C. Fields once said. Maybe that should be expanded to hyper-realistic computer-generated children and reindeer, too.
As technically dazzling as we're supposed to believe they are, the creations in Robert Zemeckis' Christmas adventure ''The Polar Express'' just don't look right. In fact, most of the time, they look plain wrong, the sort of creepy characters more likely to induce nightmares than visions of sugar plums.
With his ''Forrest Gump'' and ''Cast Away'' star Tom Hanks providing body movements and voices for many key characters, Zemeckis set out to create a film that stretches the bounds of computer animation with detailed digital renderings of the actors through a process called performance capture.
Hanks and his co-stars performed on a bare soundstage, their actions captured by infrared cameras keyed to receptors on their faces and bodies. Zemeckis boasts that the expressions and body language are so humanly authentic, the film cannot even be called animation.
Distributor Warner Bros. disagrees, having entered ''The Polar Express'' in the Academy Awards animated-feature category. While the characters do look more real than the usual cartoon figures, the movie clearly is a form of animation, designed to resemble the world of Chris Van Allsburg's beloved Christmas picture book.
Whether the creations of ''The Polar Express'' are more emotive than the fairy-tale beings of ''Shrek'' or the superhero caricatures of ''The Incredibles'' is questionable. When Shrek's pal Donkey cracks a goofy grin, you feel it, and grin right back.
When the nameless children of ''The Polar Express'' stare you in the face, they're unsettling, stuck in some shadowy zone between flesh and figment. They have lifelike parts hair, mouths, ears, noses but the pieces fit together rather formlessly, like the indefinite features of the embryonic pod people of ''Invasion of the Body Snatchers.''
And there's something eerie and dead about these children's eyes, making them resemble those evil, stoic kids of the 1960 horror flick ''Village of the Damned.''
Some family flick, huh?
Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. sticks to the essence of Allsburg's plot: A boy (body by Hanks, voice by Daryl Sabara) lies awake on Christmas Eve, pondering whether he still believes in Santa Claus. Along comes a train, the Polar Express, stopping in front of his house to haul him to the North Pole with a bunch of other kids for Santa's big send-off.
With the help of a self-assured girl (Nona Gaye) and a timid boy (body by Hanks' ''Bosom Buddies'' co-star Peter Scolari, voice by Jimmy Bennett) who's accustomed to Christmas passing him by, our hero comes to once again embrace Santa and the holiday spirit.
Hanks also provides body movements and voices for the train conductor, Santa, the lead boy's dad and a ghostly hobo who hitches a ride on the Polar Express.
Many of the visuals are truly fantastic the remarkable detail of the train, wolves prowling the woods, an eagle swooping across mountain peaks.
In this photo released by Warner Bros. Pictures, Oscar winning actor Tom Hanks is shown wearing digital sensors on his head, hands and face in the left image, as he performs a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures "Polar Express." The image at right is the final digital rendering of Hanks' character in the digitally animated film.
AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures
Yet so much of the action Zemeckis adds to stretch out a thin storybook is in service only of the visuals, not the plot or characters. There are grating musical routines to mostly forgettable songs by Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri (Aerosmith's Steven Tyler performs as an elf belting out the party tune ''Rockin' on Top of the World'').
The North Pole is a turgid mob scene, with elves so ominous and off-putting all they need are drabber garments and some scars and lesions to fit right into the dark army of Mordor in ''The Lord of the Rings.''
And when in doubt, the filmmakers send the three main kiddies spiraling down a track or tunnel.
Maybe the pretty pictures and visual commotion will be enough to satisfy young children.
Their parents might be wishing they had stayed home and read Allsburg's book again to their little ones.
''The Polar Express,'' a Warner Bros. release, is rated G. Running time: 99 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
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