Poor Donna Keppel (Brittany Snow). Some years back her parents and brother were slaughtered by Richard Fenton (Jonathan Schaech) a teacher who had developed a psychotic fixation on her. Richard went to an insane asylum but he broke out and now he’s back in town just in time for Prom Night where he resumes his pursuit of Donna and knocks off some of her friends for good measure. Bringing up the rear is dogged Detective Winn (Idris Elba) desperately trying to nail Fenton as the body count mounts. Sooner or later--and it’s much later unfortunately--Donna will come face to face with Fenton one last time. With characters as one-dimensional and dumb as these there’s not much the cast can do except stand around in their prom outfits waiting to get killed off. As the deranged killer Schaech stares glares and skulks around. Leading lady Snow widens her eyes and worries accordingly throughout while Elba tries to inject a little intensity into the stock role of the cop on the case. Working from a bad screenplay by J.S. Cardone first-time helmer Nelson McCormick displays little enthusiasm--either for the genre or for this particular film. The scare tactics are hackneyed and usually involve characters surprising each other--a gag that gets really old really quickly. When one character mutters “This is getting silly. Enough already ” we couldn’t agree more. And we’d add “boring” to that statement. It should be noted however that there’s an awfully high body count for a film rated PG-13 even if the film isn’t as bloody as one might expect. McCormick and Cardone have re-teamed on the upcoming remake of The Stepfather and if their collaboration here is any indication horror fans may have reason to be afraid--very afraid.
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!