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!
Based on the award-winning children's novel by Natalie Babbitt the story is set in 1914 as Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel) a rich girl on the brink of maturity longs for change in her life. Her domineering mother (Amy Irving) has plans to turn her into a respectable lady but Winnie is one spirited lass who wants nothing to do with the rigid conformities of her time. In fact she'd much rather escape into the woods surrounding her house. Getting lost one day Winnie stumbles upon Jesse Tuck (Jonathan Jackson) a boy unlike any she's ever met before. He and his family--father Angus (William Hurt) mother Mae (Sissy Spacek) and brother Miles (Scott Bairstow)--live hidden away in a little cabin on a lake and they warmly accept her as one of their own. Winnie realizes the Tucks are different ageless somehow but once Winnie starts to experience the Tucks' freedom and simple way of life she contemplates never going home. That and the fact she and Jesse have fallen in love. Still the Tucks harbor a powerful secret no one else must know about--ever--but an evil man (Ben Kingsley) tracks them down threatening to expose them and profit from the "secret." Luckily things have a way of working out for the Tucks one way or another. It is Winnie who ends up making the tough decisions--life forever with her beloved Jesse or a life with a beginning a middle and an end. Sure I could come right out and tell you what the film's big secret is but then that might spoil the fun of finding out for yourself (although I've given plenty of clues).
The fresh new talent of Bledel Jackson and Bairstow adds to the film's youthful appeal while the veteran actors compliment them nicely. Bledel best known for the WB's Gilmore Girls plays Winnie with the right amount of fiery spirit and endless curiosity while Jackson with those full lips and floppy hair plays the love-struck Jesse perfectly. You believe instantly that Jesse has fallen deeply in love with Winnie; however it's Bledel's performance where there is a problem. She is great at being the spunky Winnie but is somewhat stiff and unconvincing as the smitten one which takes away from the film's romantic scope a bit. Bairstow is quite good as brother Miles a character who shows how the Tucks' "secret" has a dark side. When he tells Winnie the truth about his family and how damaging it has been to him it is a moving and powerful scene. Kingsley as the malevolent Man in the Yellow Suit (that's the character's name I swear) expertly plays upon the film's main theme: the wish by most humans to be able to live forever. Kingsley's greedy eyes tell it all. Hurt and Spacek do a nice job as the simplistic elder Tucks while Irving and Victor Garber deftly play the contrast as Winnie's parents. Each however show how they love their children and will protect them at all costs.
Tuck is definitely one of the more beautiful films to watch certainly up there with other such children's stories as The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. Shot in the wooded areas of Maryland the film is full of lush green tones and spectacular vistas. Director Jay Russell is no stranger to heartwarming films having directed the endearing My Dog Skip and knows how to deal with environment. Watching the two young lovers running through tall grass or jumping into pool with a cascading waterfall honestly would make any girl want to go into the woods to find a handsome guy who'll sweep her off her feet. Russell handles the romantic elements as well. Careful not to make it too melodramatic he sweeps you up into the magic of the story while delving into the film's moral dilemmas and life choices the characters must deal with. Unfortunately he can't bring out the best performance from his leading actress but the rest of the film makes up for it.