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The Polar Express (2004)
The Polar Express is a 2004 motion capture computer-animated fantasy film based on the children's book of the same title by Chris Van Allsburg. Written, produced, and directed by Robert Zemeckis, the human characters in the film were animated using live action performance capture technique, with the exception of the waiters who dispense hot chocolate on the train, because their feats were impossible for live actors to achieve. Performance capture technology incorporates the movements of live actors into animated characters. The film stars Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Jimmy Bennett, and Eddie Deezen, with Tom Hanks in six distinct roles. The film also included a performance by Tinashe at age 9, who later gained exposure as a pop singer in 2010, as the CGI-model for "Hero Girl". The film was produced by Castle Rock Entertainment in association with Shangri-La Entertainment, ImageMovers, Playtone and Golden Mean, for Warner Bros. The visual effects and performance capture were done at Sony Pictures Imageworks. The studio first released the $165 million film in both conventional and IMAX 3D theaters on Wednesday, November 10, 2004.
Bridging the film's beautiful opening and closing, though, are 77 minutes of exhaustive, roller coaster-worthy action sequences, death-defying skids across frozen lakes and approximately 15 harrowing occasions where the beloved Polar Express is inches away from jumping its tracks and killing everybody on board. It's Van Allsburg by way of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it just doesn't fit the initial warm-and-fuzzy mood.
Introducing a pioneering and sorta creepy form of digital filmmaking dubbed 'performance capture,' in which the film was shot with live actors wearing special sensors which were later matched by computer animators, director Robert Zemeckis pumps vigor into a relatively subdued and simple story of a young boy invited to the North Pole to reinstate his fading belief in Santa Claus (voiced by a solemn Tom Hanks). Van Allsburg's original narration is a piece of Americana that's culled from children's dream on the most delightful night of the calendar year - Christmas Eve.
Zemeckis, a filmmaker recognized more for the technological advancements he's brought to the medium, reaches deep into his special effects stocking and pulls out a visual masterpiece that's as frigid as a lump of coal and as delectable as a fruit cake. As expected, Zemeckis pours his efforts into the groundbreaking animation to create an expressive art form that's light years ahead of the competition. On the emotional side, Polar falls flat and pulls up woefully short on genuine yuletide cheer. You get the sense that Zemeckis would rather perfect the breathtaking journey of a lost train ticket, which floats and soars like Forrest Gump's feather along the twisty tracks, than craft an accurate human response to a child's face-to-face with St. Nick.
The director's ramped-up contributions overshadow the book's inherent message about losing our childhood innocence. The Polar padding includes, but is by no means limited to, the motivational ramblings of a stowaway (Hanks) who may or may not be a ghost, bungee-jumping elves, and insufferable musical numbers about hot chocolate sung by a wooden conductor (Hanks, again).
A lonely lad (voiced by perpetual Bosom Buddy Peter Scolari) sits by himself in the train's caboose until he's required to break into a sappy holiday tune, which morphs into a duet with the sassy African-American girl on board. Their gooey selection is marginally better then the theme park-cheesy jingles that pervade the soundtrack once the Express finally pulls into Santa's headquarters. You're better off picking up Van Allsburg's delightful book this season, and leaving the rest to your own imagination.
The long-awaited DVD features a second disc of extras, including features on the special effects, the original source material of the movie, and more, plus there's an extra song not in the original film, games, and much more.
Pay no attention to the troll in the red hat.
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