In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
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!