Open Season follows a few different tired and true scenarios. There’s the fish-out-of-water setup: A 900-pound tamed grizzly bear named Boog (Martin Lawrence) is inadvertently released back into the wild—and has no idea how to wing it. See he was living a pleasant domesticated life with Ranger Beth (Debra Messing) who rescued him as cub. But when he meets Elliot (Ashton Kutcher) a wild mule deer with one antler and helps him escape off the hood of a truck belonging to the very evil hunter Shaw (Gary Sinise) one thing leads to another and Boog finds himself stranded in the woods right at the beginning of hunting season with an annoying Elliot by his side. The other woodland creatures aren’t much help either. Then suddenly Open Season turns into an us-against-them situation as a group of the potentially hunted led by Boog and Elliot decide to unite and fight back. It all gels rather hilariously. Like Laurel and Hardy Boog and Elliot are the classic big guy/little guy comedy duo. Works like a charm and Lawrence and Kutcher yuck it up with the best of them. Sinise’s voice is somewhat unrecognizable as the rotten-to-the-core Shaw while Messing is her kooky self as the do-gooder park ranger. Even Georgia Engel--sweet Georgette from The Mary Tyler Moore Show--lends her distinctive voice as a talkative camper. But what really makes Open Season zing is all the idiosyncratic side characters: Scottish squirrel McSquizzy (Billy Connolly) who gets all Braveheart on those he doesn’t like; a New Jersey-type construction beaver named Reilly (Jon Favreau); Buck Ian (Patrick Warburton) the arrogant leader of the deer herd; sassy Latina skunks (Michelle Murdocca and Nika Futterman); a sad but creepy porcupine (Matt Taylor); and a duck (Danny Mann) suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Then there are the rabbits a panicky bunch who never say anything but are always around by the thousands. They stick to things too if you throw them. Out of the glut of CGI-animated comedies this year Over the Hedge and Open Season are the true stand outs. Why? Maybe it’s because they are both created by comic-strip cartoonists (Over the Hedge is based on the comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis) who by the very nature of their jobs have a certain wry outlook on life. Cartoonist Steve Moore (of In the Bleachers fame) thought of Open Season after reading stories about domesticated animals living in mountain communities who eventually outstay their welcome and are sent out into the wilderness. How would they survive? According to Open Season not very well. Obviously incorporating creative forces from outside the box gives Open Season a refreshing comical edge. It’s still hard to top the reigning kings Pixar and DreamWorks but the new kids on the block Sony Pictures Animation whose only other credit so far is Monster House (another standout for the year) are showing some mettle.
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!