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The success of Ender's Game rests on the shoulders of one grand assumption: that everybody in the audience, everybody in the world, wishes they could have gone to space camp. And for the most part, that's true. The idea of space camp was, even to those of us stricken with cloying vertigo, heaven. We all wanted to don astronaut suits and float through anti-gravity rooms, blasting away at each other with lasers and learning the tricks of the extraterrestrial warfare trade. Those dazzling dreams are the principal meat of Gavin Hood's adaptation of the controversial classic — the majority of the time we spend with Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), we're alongside him in battle school. We're watching video footage of a battalion laying waste to an army of invaders, and zipping weightlessly along in high-stakes games of space rugby. So, through these chapters, we're having fun.
And it's not entirely untethered fun. Along the way, Ender endures the sort of coming-of-age traumas we've seen in every preteen protagonist from Sean Astin to Daniel Radcliffe. He doesn't fit in. He doesn't know who he is. He doesn't like what he's becoming. It's not difficult material to wrestle with, but it's just enough substance to give us a reason for caring about whether or not he beats the Napoleonic school bully in tactical games, or wins special affection from fellow soldier Hailee Steinfeld.
But this story of a growing boy struggling with his intellectual gifts and emotional curses finds itself planted clumsily in the middle of a movie that wants to be about something else. Even if you've read the book, or heard the "big reveal" from loud-mouthed friends of yours who don't revere spoiler etiquette, you'll be surprised by the ending for Ender. Because it comes out of nowhere.
The character's emotional journey is bound so tenuously to the narrative around him that you'll be confused at exactly what is going on when the two collide. You'll question whether or not you nodded during a scene that might have tied everything together, or challenge your own capacity for picking up subtle signals. Don't be so hard on yourself; Ender's Game wants to conquer two worlds (one inside its hero, the other outside its spaceships), but doesn't dive far enough into either to make it so. The script only scratches the surface of its science-fiction backdrop, and only the broadest of strokes are painted with Ender — he's not a complex enough character to warrant the psychological suspension of disbelief that the film eventually asks of its viewer.
But he doesn't need to be, nor do these tasks really need to be conquered, for Ender's Game to be a good time. With just enough of a sob story to ground the movie, a surprisingly warm performance by the larger-than-life headmaster (Harrison Ford) — that is, when he's not standing up slowly and peering in awe directly through the camera — and, most importantly, all the anti-gravity fun you can ask for, Ender's Game works just fine for anyone looking to float free from the world for two hours.
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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!