Based on Chris Van Allsburg's enchanting award winning children's book the story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve where a doubting young boy lies in his bed waiting to hear the sound he doesn't know if he believes in anymore: the tinkle of Santa's sleigh bells. What he hears instead however is the thunderous roar of an approaching train where no train should be: it's the Polar Express. Rushing outside in only a robe and slippers the incredulous boy meets the train's conductor who urges him to come onboard. Suddenly the boy finds himself embarking on an extraordinary journey to the North Pole with a number of other children--including a girl who has the tools to be a good leader but lacks confidence; a know-it-all boy who lacks humility; and a lonely boy who just needs to have a little faith in other people to make his dreams come true. Together the children discover that the wonder of Christmas never fades for those who believe. As the conductor wisely advises "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on." Gives ya goose bumps doesn't it?
Talk about a vanity project for Tom Hanks. He portrays several of the characters in the film--the conductor the hobo who mysteriously appears and disappears on the Polar Express the boy's father. Wait isn't that Hanks playing Santa Claus as well? But if anyone can pull off some cheesy dialogue about the spirit of Christmas this Oscar-winning actor can. Interestingly the film also incorporates adults to play the children (none of the characters have names actually) with Hanks as the Hero Boy; Hanks' Bosom Buddies pal Peter Scolari as the Lonely Boy; The Matrix Revolutions Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl; and veteran voice actor Eddie Deezen as the Know-It-All Boy. Everyone does a good job but trying to make CGI-created people seem real is a difficult undertaking. With
The Polar Express director Robert Zemeckis has created an entirely new way to do computer animation called "performance capture." "[It's a process that] offers a vivid rendering of the Van Allsburg world while infusing a sense of heightened realism into the performances. It's like putting the soul of a live person into a virtual character " visual effects wizard and longtime Zemeckis collaborator Ken Ralston explains. Oh is that all? Problem is no matter how hard they try it doesn't work--not completely. Similar to flaws in the 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within virtual characters just can't convey human emotion as well as real-life actors plain and simple. And with a touching story like Polar Express that real-life connection is missed at times.
Of course like the images in the book it's still an exceptionally beautiful film to watch. Zemeckis enjoys being a filmmaking innovator. He charmed audiences with a lively blend of live action and manic animation in the 1988 classic action comedy Who Framed
Roger Rabbit? and then wowed them with the 1994 Oscar-winning Forrest Gump blending authentic archival footage of historic figures with the actors. Now with The Polar Express it's this performance capture which gives Zemeckis unlimited freedom in creating the world he wants. And boy does he make use of it. True the story is a classic but the director knows he has to make The Polar Express exciting for the tykes-- simply riding around in a train to North Pole without any thrills certainly wouldn't be enough for the ADD world we live in. To accomplish this the film is padded with exhilarating scenes such as the train going on a giant roller coaster ride through the mountains and across frozen lakes (too bad Warner Bros. doesn't have a theme park) and the boy's race across the top of the snowy Polar Express. Even the North Pole is a booming magical Mecca filled with some pretty boisterous (and weird looking) elves who like to send Santa off in style Christmas Eve--watch out for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler making a cameo as a jammin' elf. Ho-ho-ho!
Scooby and the gang at Mystery Inc.--Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.) Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) Velma (Linda Cardellini) and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard)--are at the top of their game and just about everyone in Coolsville loves them. Even the Coolsonian Museum is honoring them with an exhibit--a costumed display of Mystery Inc.'s former foes such as The Pterodactyl Ghost The Black Knight Ghost and The 10 000 Volt Ghost. Yet at the museum's gala opening the team's stellar reputation is put in serious jeopardy when said monsters come alive re-created by a masked villain who vows to bring Mystery Inc. down. Under pressure from relentless reporter Heather Jasper-Howe (Alicia Silverstone) the gang launches an investigation into the monster outbreak but as the mystery deepens Mystery Inc.'s members end up questioning their roles within the organization. Can macho leader Fred and image-conscious Daphne look past the superficial and find the identity of the Evil Masked Figure? Will brainy Velma let her feelings for Coolsonian Museum curator Patrick Wisely (Seth Green) blossom even though he is a key suspect? And finally can Shaggy and Scooby stop cowering--and eating--long enough to prove they can be detectives? These are tough times for the gang but they've got to pull it together so they can solve the mystery and save the day.
Even though it seems a little ridiculous that Scooby-Doo 2's fleshed-out cartoon characters would try to dig deep to find answers within the returning actors continue to have fun exploring their alter-Scooby-egos. Prinze's Fred has a hipper haircut this time (the original matted blond 'do had to go) and isn't quite the braggart he once was. He is still unquestionably the "face" of the group until he is made to look foolish by the ruthless Heather played with relish by Silverstone who shines in the bad-girl role. Gellar has definitely dropped Daphne's "damsel-in-distress" routine getting all Buffy on the monsters but is still worried that its her looks not her skills that get her attention. Cardellini's Velma on the other hand gets a love interest--and even all dolled up at one point--but can't get rid of her inherent geekiness. It's Shaggy and Scooby who experience the biggest revelation realizing they really are nothing but giant screw-ups. Lillard actually turns in some (and I can't believe I'm actually saying this) poignant moments as Shag grapples with his inequities. They all realize in the end though that for the good of Mystery Inc. it's best to be true to yourself. Thank god.
Director Raja Gosnell goes full throttle in his second Scooby effort with more action and more elaborate theme-parky sets than the original. Even as the characters pause to reflect on their faults these moments are thankfully short-lived before the gang is thrust into another wild chase or fight sequence keeping the kiddies' minds occupied--and allowing the adult fans to laugh at all the monsters they remember from the TV show. One of the criticisms from the first Scooby-Doo was that it didn't provide enough "inside" jokes for the grown-up enthusiasts (and face it there are probably more of them than kids). But Scooby-Doo 2 harkens back to the good old days and even pokes fun at all those criminals whose evil plans and ghost disguises were foiled by the meddlesome quintet. They all gather at their own watering hole called the Faux Ghost where they can throw darts at pictures of the Mystery Inc. gang. Funny stuff. Overall the sequel provides the same madcap fun the original did without requiring the use of too much brainpower.