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!
August 17, 2004 12:57pm EST
Jackson family arrives in court Jackson 5 style
In a bizarre show of solidarity, Michael Jackson's family, including his parents, Katherine and Joseph Jackson, and siblings Janet, LaToya, Jermaine, Randy and Jackie, attended a hearing Monday in Santa Maria, Calif., to watch the singer's lawyers question the prosecutor in his child molestation case. The self-proclaimed "King of Pop" and his family arrived at the courthouse in a chauffeured double-decker bus, all of them dressed head-to-toe in white. According to The Associated Press, Jackson sat for hours staring intensely at prosecutor Thomas Sneddon, who was grilled for more than three hours by the 45-year-old singer's defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. Mesereau attempted to show that Sneddon violated Jackson's attorney-client privilege by searching the office of a private investigator who worked for the singer's previous lawyer, Mark Geragos. If Mesereau is successful, the evidence taken from the private eye's office, including videotapes, computer hard discs and other items, could be thrown out of court because it is protected by attorney-client privilege. After Sneddon finished his testimony, the Jacksons retired to the modified gold and black tour bus to the screams of about 100 fans chanting, "Innocent, innocent." Jackson had not been required to attend the five-day pre-trial hearing and is not expected to return. He has pleaded innocent to charges of child molestation, kidnapping and false imprisonment and is free on $3 million bail.
Oprah selected to serve on jury
Talk show guru Oprah Winfrey, who was picked to serve on a jury at Cook County Criminal Court in Chicago, told reporters she didn't think she'd be selected because she's too opinionated. But Winfrey added that if she was picked, she hopes it wouldn't take longer than a week "because I've got shows to do." Although Winfrey entered the courthouse Monday through an alternate entrance to avoid crowds, officials said she wouldn't receive any special treatment once inside the courtroom. When Judge James B. Linn was asked how Winfrey was selected for a murder trial, he responded, "This was a straight-up jury selection." A Cook County sheriff's office spokeswoman said last week Winfrey was among some 300 prospective jurors scheduled to appear at court Monday.
Lane and Brolin marry in secrecy
Diane Lane and her beau of two years, Josh Brolin--the son of actor James Brolin and stepson of Barbra Streisand--were married in a hush-hush ceremony, the couple's publicist told the AP Tuesday. Spokeswoman Kelly Bush confirmed the wedding but said her clients banned her from saying anything else except, "they're hitched." The 39-year-old star of Unfaithful and Under the Tuscan Sun told AP Radio in August 2002 that Brolin, 36, got down on one knee and proposed on the Fourth of July. "It was early, early, early, early in the morning. Like dawn," Lane said at the time. "I had no idea what was coming."
Zeta-Jones stalker mentally fit to stand trial
A court-appointed psychiatrist said Monday the woman accused of stalking and threatening actress Catherine Zeta-Jones is mentally fit to stand trial. The AP reports Dr. Kal Sharma examined Dawnette Knight in jail, where she is currently being held on $1 million bail. Superior Court Judge John Riley Jr. halted criminal proceedings last month and ordered a mental evaluation of Knight after she overdosed on barbiturates while in county jail. A preliminary hearing is scheduled to resume Sept. 9. Knight, 33, who was arrested June 3 at her Beverly Hills, Calif., apartment, is charged with one felony count of stalking and 24 felony counts of making criminal threats. If convicted, she could face up to 19 years in state prison.
Blair Witch crewman killed in plane crash
Cinematographer Neal L. Fredericks, best known for his work on The Blair Witch Project, was killed Saturday while shooting the independent film Cross Bones, when the single-engine plane he was in crashed into the water off the Florida Keys coast. He was 35. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Fredericks was filming aerial shots for the movie from a single-engine Cessna 206 when the plane's engine sputtered twice at about 500 feet before going down in 50 feet of water, according to Cross Bones writer-director Daniel Zirilli. Zirilli, the pilot, a co-producer and a first camera assistant escaped the wreckage through an open door, but Fredericks, who was strapped into a safety harness beneath camera equipment, was unable to free himself from his seat before the plane was submerged. "It was sunny, no wind; the hurricane had passed 36 hours before," Zirilli said. "It was a glorious day. The pilot called us to go out. As far as we know, it was engine failure."
AFI honors Penn clan
The Penn family, including brothers Sean, Chris, and composer Michael; Michael's wife, singer Aimee Mann; Sean's wife, actress Robin Wright-Penn; along with matriarch Eileen Ryan Penn, will receive the American Film Institute's Platinum Circle Award Oct. 1 in Los Angeles, Variety reports. The luncheon event will also include a tribute to the late patriarch of the family, producer, writer, director and actor Leo Penn. The Platinum Circle Award is presented to a family the AFI considers to have had a significant creative influence on the entertainment industry. Previous winners include the families of Debbie Reynolds, Walter Matthau and Henry Fonda.
Fahrenheit DVD to hit stores soon
Michael Moore's searing and controversial anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 is set to release on home video Oct. 5 through Sony's Columbia TriStar home entertainment unit, AP reports. The announcement Monday confirmed Moore's initial intention to have the film out shortly before Election Day, a time frame the director has favored since winning the top honor at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The film has grossed $115 million domestically, the first documentary ever to top the $100 million mark.
Rapper Shyne loses phone privileges
Jailed rapper Shyne, a former protégé of Sean "P. Diddy" Combs who has been in jail since 2001 for the 1999 nightclub shooting that involved Combs' then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez, had his phone privileges revoked Monday and was barred from conducting in-person interviews as authorities investigate whether the rapper violated prison rules in making about 100 phone calls, AP reports. Shyne, whose real name is Jamal Barrow, signed a $3 million record deal and recorded part of his new album, Godfather Buried Alive, while in prison. He has been in great demand with the media since the album was released last week. Already, MTV has aired a special about him, The New York Times conducted a phone interview, and he's on the cover of the September issue of Vibe wearing his dark-green prison uniform.
Kit Bowen contributed to this report.