Not content to let the lifeless zombies of 2004‘s Polar Express define his legacy as a pioneer of 3-D Christmas movies (a genre to which incidentally he remains the sole contributor) director Robert Zemeckis is back for another go at it and this time his inspiration isn’t just some fly-by-night Caldecott Medal winner; it’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol perhaps the most cherished piece of Christmas fiction of all time.
While other filmmakers have tackled Dickens’ most famous work before none adapted it in the way the author would have wanted it to be presented: as a big-budget three-dimensional motion-capture animated spectacle starring the legendary Jim Carrey. Thankfully for us Zemeckis stepped up to the plate.
For the dozen or so who are unfamiliar with A Christmas Carol’s simple yet powerful story a quick rundown is in order. On a snowy Christmas Eve in 19th-century London a notorious miser named Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Carrey) is visited by three ghosts (also played by Carrey): Christmas Past Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come. Together the terrifying apparitions conspire to teach Scrooge an unforgettable lesson about the folly of his avarice and the virtue of charity and compassion.
Unlike Zemeckis’ previous literary adaptation 2006’s Beowulf there isn’t a whole lot about A Christmas Carol’s tale of yuletide redemption that cries out for the 3-D treatment — nor does the star of Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective seem especially suited to play the part of Scrooge. And yet both creative decisions prove surprisingly successful in this movie. Zemeckis’ 3-D animation is wondrous to behold and Carrey is simply terrific as the bitter old grinch.
The problem is Zemeckis can’t resist falling in love with his technology and his star; consequently A Christmas Carol overdoses on both. The first time the camera glides through the streets of Dickensian London or soars above its snow-covered skyline the experience is breathtaking like being plunged into a world of Thomas Kinkade paintings. (And I mean that in a good way — even the fiercest detractors of the Painter of LightTM’s mass-produced portraits have to admit they hold a certain romantic appeal.) But by the fifth or sixth time it devolves into tedious showmanship.
Similarly while Carrey’s total immersion into the Scrooge character is remarkable his manic mugging as the Christmas ghosts is all too often distracting. Don’t ask me what the Ghost of Christmas Present was talking about during his sequence; all he seemed to do was laugh like a drunken Viking and blather on with an exaggerated Scottish accent.
But in the end neither Zemeckis’ overreach nor Carrey’s hysterics can obscure the impact of A Christmas Carol’s timeless message. As with previous adaptations of the story I couldn’t help but tear up a little when Tiny Tim uttered his trademark closing line “God bless us everyone!” — even if he did kinda look like a cartoon zombie.
If you thought a San Francisco police detective (Michael Douglas) was hard to break imagine how tough it is to sway a London shrink (David Morrissey). Leave it to Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) to try. The sinful author has resurfaced and--in the nearly decade and a half since the first Basic Instinct--moved to London. Old habits die hard however and she’s again being investigated for a sex-gone-awry homicide. This time it’s renowned shrink Michael Glass who’s charged with keeping a watchful eye on the elusive seductress--and does he ever! He tries to maintain his professional ethos but what’s a platonic doctor-patient non-relationship to him is the ultimate aphrodisiac to Tramell whom Dr. Glass diagnoses with “risk addiction” and delusions of omnipotence. And so begins the Freudian chess match: How long can he resist the femme fatale and how long can she resist him resisting her? In Basic Instinct 2 Stone makes us feel naughty--and not a “good” naughty. She looks great and there aren't any uh extra close-ups but subtly put almost 15 years have past since the first installment and Stone is no spring chick--er rabbit as it were. For her to still be oozing sex as if it’s only been a sequel-standard couple of years is creepy even though she looks nowhere near her age. The accompanying smolder and breathy voice make it hard not to laugh; she’s actually too regal an actress for this stuff. Morrissey--who strangely resembles the Smiths singer of the same name--does fine work with an unenviable role of a steely bloke intrigued by the seedy London underworld his patient enjoys. But it’ll take repeated broodings for him to be the next Clive Owen. The biggest waste of talent comes from Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool) as Glass’s mentor. She has no place here and that’s meant solely as a compliment. In some ways Basic Instinct 2 is such a shame: When the film operates purely as a murder mystery--at least for its first half--it’s somewhat engaging. Sadly the only reason there’s any interest in this long-delayed sequel at all is the prospects of sex to outlast its original. Thus it is clear to see how cantankerous a film this must’ve been for director Michael Caton-Jones but he does the best he can with all the sexual innuendo that leads up to all the sexual (anti-)climaxes. The completely absurd opening sequence gives it all up without even playing hard to get. It immediately feels like a traditionally slick dull and revelatory film whereas the first one offered us foreplay first before moving on to no-holds-barred sex; there’s neither that brand of foreplay nor sex here. More ridiculous still is the second half as the film eventually feebly attempts to hide improbable twists behind the sordid mind of a writer.
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!