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!
Sometimes it sucks being Spider-Man. Two years of playing superhero has finally gotten to Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) who finds himself in the middle of an identity crisis. Not only does he feel underappreciated as Spider-Man he's also broke flunking out of college and of course still can't get the girl. He wishes more and more he didn't have this "gift " so he can live a normal mild-mannered life and declare his love to Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). She wants to love him too if she could only get some kind of signal but Peter keeps pushing her away (for her own good of course) until she decides she has to move on with her life. Poor Peter. The reluctant hero is also on tenuous ground with his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) who is now working for his late father's company but whose growing vendetta against Spider-Man clouds their friendship. While Peter wavers on giving the whole superhero gig up for good across town there's a new even more powerful nemesis in the making. Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) a scientist working on a breakthrough fusion-energy invention for Harry's company has a freak accident (is there any other kind?) in his lab which leaves him with four deadly mechanical tentacles fused to his back--and his mind diabolically twisted. Suddenly the city is desperate for Spider-Man's help as the madman dubbed Doc Ock runs amok. For the love of god pull yourself together Peter accept your fate and put those Spidey powers to good use!
As if there are still any doubts Tobey Maguire's performance in Spider-Man 2 reaffirms the fact he fits the Peter Parker/Spider-Man persona perfectly. It's in his eyes his red-rimmed soulful eyes which show every sentiment. Maguire is not afraid to embrace Parker's sensitive albeit nerdy nature. Beneath the buffed out exterior and superhuman abilities he's still a lovable geek deep down (watch him trip over his feet when he walks down the street). As Mary Jane Dunst is thankfully no longer just the damsel in distress but also a thriving and successful actress who displays her own fair share of emotions over their unrequited love. Spider-Man is in essence a love story and these two talented actors continue to spark like the best of them (although rumor has it they can't stand each other in real life. Oh actors.) The intense Franco chews it up with gusto as the angst-ridden Harry. But what truly makes Spider-Man 2 rise above the original is the malevolent Doc Ock played with relish by the brilliant Molina (Frida). Far more menacing and formidable a villain than the Green Goblin (sorry Willem Dafoe) the multi-tentacled mad scientist just plain scares the bejeezus out of you. Yet he also elicits sympathy if you can believe it watching the relatively sane man buried deep within the madness struggle to break free. Heck just about everyone's conflicted in this flick.
It's no wonder Spider-Man 2 surpasses its predecessor. Thanks to comic-book guru Stan Lee who created something operatic in the Spider-Man story the film's heartfelt and inherent conflicts--tortured souls undying love vs. duty to fellow man villains with a conscience--just keeps getting more and more interesting. And luckily director Sam Raimi rarely strays from the main source. From the opening credits where scenes from the first film are shown through glorious artwork Raimi crafts the movie to combine the best in visuals with the compelling story fashioning a thrill ride with heart. One of the best examples is when Spider-Man uses all his strength to stop a speeding train and falls exhausted only to be caught by the people on the train and carefully placed on the ground. Exposed and vulnerable Spider-Man's faith is renewed when the folks around him tell him they'll keep his secret safe. Classic stuff. The only minor drawback is the time it takes for Peter to get over his identity crisis; the "will he won't he?" drags a bit. Maybe we just get a little anxious for Parker to realize people really do need Spider-Man and to finally go webbed head-to-mechanical tentacle with the nasty Doc Ock. It's what a must-see summer blockbuster is all about baby.