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!
December 01, 2003 5:34am EST
The Haunted Mansion and Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat dominated the Thanksgiving box office with Eddie Murphy's Disneyland attraction flick placing first for the five day holiday period and Mike Myers' wacky feline topping the three day chart.
The Haunted Mansion enjoyed the biggest five day (Wed.-Sun.) slice of box office pie with $35 million* versus The Cat in the Hat's $34 million take. For three days (Fri.- Sun.), The Cat in the Hat led with $25.5 million versus The Haunted Mansion $25.3 million.
Of the four new wide releases vying for the North American box office, The Haunted Mansion was the only one to crack the Top Five, with last week's topper The Cat in the Hat giving it a run for its money, despite taking a critical beating.
"[Family films] are sometimes put up against a much more critical standard than they should be," Disney head of distribution, Chuck Viane, told The Associated Press Sunday. "You have people who want everything to be so artistic. That's not what family movies are about. They're about enjoyment and laughter and having fun."
Family entertainment was certainly the thing to beat this weekend. The holiday comedy Elf remained in third place in its third week of release, taking in a not-so-elfish $31.8 million. Elf's weekend take was enough to push it by the $100 million mark, making it the 24th release of the year to do so. This ties 2002's record of 24 films.
Gothika, meanwhile, came in fourth with $18.2 million, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World rounded out the Top Five with $17.5 million.
Thanksgiving's three other wide theatrical openings were turkeys compared to Mansion--Bad Santa brought in only $16.8 million, The Missing made $16.5 million and Timeline took $12.6 million. The films came in sixth, seventh and eighth respectively.
Key films grossed $209.5 million for five days, up about 8.6 percent from last Thanksgiving (Nov. 27 to Dec. 1, 2002) when key films did $192.9 million. The year 2000 still holds the overall Thanksgiving record with $232.16 million for the Top 12's five-day period, but if this week's estimates hold, this year's five-day posts will be the second all-time best.
THE TOP TEN
(NOTE: Today's films are ranked according to their estimates for the FIVE-DAY Thanksgiving holiday period from Wednesday through Sunday. Percentage variations do not apply because the previous weekend was a normal three-day weekend. Estimates for the three-day period from Friday through Sunday are indicated parenthetically.)
Buena Vista's PG rated horror comedy The Haunted Mansion led the five-day box office in its opening week with an ESTIMATED $35 million at 3,122 theaters, with a strong $8,104 per theater average. (Its ESTIMATED gross for three days is $25.3 million.)
In the film, a real estate agent moves his family into a mansion located on a remote bayou with the hopes of refurbishing it and making the deal of a lifetime--until he unearths the house's history and finds that his wife has unexpected connections to its haunted past.
Directed by David Berenbaum, it stars Eddie Murphy, Terence Stamp, Nathaniel Parker, Marsha Thomason and Jennifer Tilly.
Universal Pictures' PG rated Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat, last week's box office champ, followed in close second in its second week with an ESTIMATED $34 million at 3,467 theaters (+3 theaters, $7,130 per theater). Its cume is approximately $77 million. (Its ESTIMATED gross for three days is $25.5 million.)
Directed by Bo Welch, it stars Mike Myers, Dakota Fanning, Spencer Breslin, Kelly Preston, Alec Baldwin and Sean Hayes.
New Line Cinema's PG rated holiday comedy Elf remained in third place in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $31.8 million at 3,202 theaters (-179 theaters; $6,925 per theater). Its cume is approximately $130.1 million. (Its ESTIMATED gross for three days is $22.1 million.)
Directed by Jon Favreau, it stars Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Zooey Deschanel and Mary Steenburgen.
Warner Bros.' R rated horror thriller Gothika fell two notches to fourth place in its second week with an ESTIMATED $18.2 million at 2,382 theaters (unchanged; $5,336 per theater). Its cume is approximately 41.1 million. (Its ESTIMATED gross for three days is $12.7 million.)
Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, it stars Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Penelope Cruz and Bernard Hill.
Twentieth Century Fox's PG-13 rated naval epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World dropped one place to round out the Top Five in its third week with an ESTIMATED $17.5 million at 2,703 theaters (-398 theaters; $4,698 per theater). Its cume is approximately $67.4 million. (Its ESTIMATED gross for three days is $12.7 million.)
Directed by Peter Weir, it stars Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Miramax Films' R rated holiday comedy Bad Santa kicked off rather politely in sixth place with an ESTIMATED $16.8 million at 2,005 theaters ($6,227 per theater). (Its ESTIMATED gross for three days is $12.4 million.)
In the film, two conmen disguised as Santa and his elf go on a road trip to rob malls during the holiday season.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff, it stars Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, Tony Cox and John Ritter.
Sony Pictures' R rates Western The Missing debuted in seventh place with an ESTIMATED $16.5 million at 2,765 theaters ($4,245 per theater). (Its ESTIMATED gross for three days is $11.7 million.)
In the film, a young medicine woman raising her two daughters in an isolated area of New Mexico in the 1880s must reunite with her estranged father when one of her children is abducted.
Directed by Ron Howard, it stars Cate Blanchett, Tommy Lee Jones, Jenna Boyd and Eric Schweig.
Paramount Pictures' PG-13 rated thriller Timeline opened in eighth place with an ESTIMATED $12.6 million at 2,787 theaters ($3,041 per theater). (Its ESTIMATED gross for three days is $8.4 million.)
In the film, based on Michael Crichton's 1999 bestseller, a group of archeologists travel to and get trapped in 14th-century France.
Directed by Richard Donner, it stars Paul Walker, Gerard Butler, Billy Connolly and Frances O'Connor.
Universal Pictures' R rated romantic comedy Love Actually dropped four positions to ninth in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $11.2 million in 1,714 theaters (+24 theaters; $4,597 per theater). Its cume is approximately $43.2 million. (Its ESTIMATED gross for three days is $7.8 million.)
Directed and written by Richard Curtis, it stars Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley and Bill Nighy.
Buena Vista's G rated animated film Brother Bear slipped three spots to No. 10 in its sixth week with an ESTIMATED $6.4 million in 2,034 theaters (-851; $2,409 per theater). Its cume is approximately $77.7 million. (Its ESTIMATED gross for three days is $4.9 million.)
Directed by Aaron Blaise and Bob Walker, it features the voices of Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Suarez, D.B. Sweeney and Michael Clarke Duncan.
As the major studios begin generating their pre-Academy Award buzz, several Oscar-bait films debuted this weekend in limited release.
Fox Searchlight's PG-13 rated drama In America debuted in 11 theaters with an ESTIMATED $257,853 ($18,430 per theater average. (Its ESTIMATED gross for three days is $202,729.)
Directed by Jim Sheridan, it stars Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Djimon Hounsou, Sarah Bolger and Emma Bolger.
Lions Gate's R rated black comedy The Cooler opened in 11 theaters with an ESTIMATED $173,000 ($11,909 per theater). (Its ESTIMATED gross for three days is $131,000.)
Dirceted by Wayne Kramer, it stars William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin and Maria Elana Bello.
Sony Picture Classics' PG-13 rated animated feature Triplets of Belleville (Les Triplette de Belleville) opened in six theaters with $150,371 ($19,106 per theater). Its ESTIMATED gross for three days is $114,636.)
Directed by Sylvain Chomet, it features the voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin, Monica Viegas and Michèle Caucheteux.
Key films--those grossing more than $500,000--took in an ESTIMATED $209.5 million for the five day Thanksgiving holiday period, up about 8.6 percent from last year's five day Thanksgiving weekend when they totaled $195.9 million. Comparisons to last weekend of this year are not valid because last weekend was a normal three-day weekend.