Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Polar Express


I  must offer my abject apologies for my long absence from the world of superior film criticism. I know that all of you fans out there in the dark have had your lives diminished without being able to keep abreast of the latest doings in my celebrated life but circumstances have been conspiring against me and it's been difficult for me to post to the net of late. The reasons have to do with goings on at Camp Sisterwood, home of the Feminist Arts Council Theatrical Showstoppers or FACTS. When they asked me up to choreograph their latest production, a post modern feminist take on the Jack the Ripper legend, Bodice Ripper, I had no idea how all consuming the job would be. 

Camp Sisterwood has very strict rules about contact with the outside world. Internet access is not allowed as it might allow images of men to penetrate this all female sanctum and I was made to leave my laptop at the gate. I have been able to leave the grounds from time to time but trying to turn a group of masculine looking lumberjack types into nineteenth century corseted seductresses has been problematic. I had to go back to square one with these girls who seemed to be completely unfamiliar with even the most basic of feminine arts such as false eyelashes, panty girdles, stiletto heels and feather boas. It took me ten days to even teach them to walk across the stage without looking like the evening shift coming into a steel plant. I'll post more about these travails shortly. 

Anyway, things are beginning to look up a little bit and I felt I could finally take a few days away from the project to spend some time with Normy at home at Chateau Maine. We celebrated by heading out to the Cineplex for a new film. Our choice was the new holiday movie, The Polar Express with Tom Hanks, based on the popular children's picture book by Chris Van Allsburg about belief and Santa Claus. After my experiences recently, I thought I'd better follow my friend Mame Dennis Burnside's advice about needing a little Christmas. 

The book The Polar Express is based on, is a simple picture story book for young readers which won the Caldecott medal in 1986. Writer/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, taking inspiration from his own life, used the belief in Santa, which generally fades late in childhood, to write a simple meditation on the nature of belief which spoke to children and adults alike in rich and wondrous images. His dreamlike, pastel illustration style creates a world of its own which, of course, attracted the attention of the film community. An earlier Caldecott winning picture book of his, Jumanji about a mysterious game that comes to life, had become a less than successful Robin Williams live action vehicle a few years back and the makers, this time around, tried to create a film style more faithful to Van Allsburg's simple surrealism. 

To do this, director Robert Zemeckis has used a cross between animation and live action. The performers were filmed in motion capture suits and this information was fed into computers where CGI animation artists used this as a basis for the performances of the characters on film. This allows for a soft pastel look of surreality while maintaining the intricacies of body language and facial nuance of fine actors. The end result is a little off putting - not exactly live action, not exactly animation, but as the film community becomes more comfortable with the idiom, I can see very interesting work coming in the future. 

The plot of The Polar Express is quite simple. A nameless boy, from sometime in the fifties by his accoutrements, is beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, as the world is going to sleep, a mysterious train, the polar express, pulls up to his front door and he's invited to board, by a conductor for a trip to the North Pole to visit Santa. After an eventful train ride, during which he befriends a young black girl, a poor boy who has never been able to experience the joy of Christmas, and a rail riding hobo who keeps vanishing into thin air, he arrives at the North Pole, and, through an encounter with Santa, learns the meaning of belief through symbolism. 

Tom Hanks, a frequent collaborator with Zemeckis and executive producer of the film, is the performer behind most of the major roles including the hero child, the conductor, the hobo and Santa. It's a little disconcerting to hear that familiar voice and see those familiar tics coming out of disparate characters but he does a fine job differentiating them all. The supporting characters are ably cast as well, including Peter Scolari as the poor child, Nona Gaye as the girl and Eddie Deezen as an irritating know it all (the sort of part he's been specializing in for a quarter century). 

The biggest fault of the film is one of over production. In order to stretch the material out to feature length, Von Allsburg's slender narrative is forced to bear the burden of numerous eye-popping action sequences, many of which play as bad amusement park rides. By the third time characters are careening down a hill or slide, it feels like three times too many and it's time for a break. It might have been better if the creators had done it as a 30 minute special for television, along the lines of the original The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, not the ridiculous bloated remake. 

Still, the animation techniques and the simple message and fable structure make this an enjoyable holiday outing for older children and adults (some bits may be too intense for very young children despite the G rating). It's certainly worth a trip to a matinee. 

Roy Rogers slippers. Hole in pocket. Racing wolves. Hot chocolate waiters gallop. Sock coffee. Gratuitous roller coaster train tracks. Gratuitous ice skidding. Caribou crossing. Pneumatic elves. Bungee jumping elves. Sky diving elves. Silver bells.

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