ALL ABOARD THE POLAR EXPRESS ... OR MAYBE NOT

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November 13, 2004 - the 9:30pm show.  It must've been past a lot of kids' bedtimes, because there were only about 10 adults in the theater when I saw it, which made me a little sad.  Just saw the returns; the number two spot's not so bad.  And of course, everyone involved is going to be okay, I'm pretty sure.  Except for Peter Scolari.  He's finished.

It's been a while since I've seen a movie for kids, and there probably won't be one as classy as this for a long while, and Fat Albert and Racing Stripes is just the beginning.  As I struggled to keep director Robert Zemeckis' resumé out of my mind, I realized that he did it.  With visions of Tales from the Crypt episodes running through my head, he was able to recapture the innocence of youth in The Polar Express.

Maybe a little too well, because it's also kinda boring.  People tend to forget that.  Do kids not also sometimes yearn to sit at the poker table and smoke the big cigars?  Once we realize that the protagonist is not going to have the typical Polar Express ride that all of the other kids got to have, things are a little easier to swallow.  The Andre half of My Dinner with Andre, if you will.  In a way, the story is a lot more like Jumanji than the filmmakers would probably like to admit: in Jumanji, it's more about what happens in between the moves the players make in the game, sometimes more agonizingly so than not.  In The Polar Express, the main kids miss out on the pomp and circumstance of the North Pole town square celebration and go off on their own adventure.  Long live the 60s!

The only other subversive streak I detected were the Jewish elves, voiced by none other than Roger Rabbit himself.  Nice to know that the North Pole hasn't had any determined Expulsion efforts.  At least, as far as we know.  We'll save that for the sequel.  Otherwise, pretty much a normal kids story.  The part with the caribou kinda tugs at the old heart strings, although the engineers balance that back out.

Even though it's a computerized animated film, there's still some room for the more conventional cinema techniques.  Note when Santa first makes his appearance and 'Hero Boy' is struggling to see him amidst the cloud of elves.  It's a slightly hand-held telephoto shot, the kind we might more typically associate with a view through a sniper's rifle, but that probably says more about me than about the shot.  As we all should know by now, the hand-held camera signifies emotional turmoil.  This is a subject that requires more exploration by someone as green as me, but with anything being possible in cinema today, especially if you've got $150 million to burn, it basically is a blessing as well as a curse.  The big hot chocolate dance number makes one think about that.  Now that the novelty of computer animation has worn off since Toy Story...

Why, I haven't even mentioned the performances yet!  Yes, there are some.  Eddie Deezen worked his way back into the Zemeckis family's good graces, apparently, and plays the only character he was born to play, the brainiac kid.  Too bad they didn't show his Getting on the Train scene, it would've been a good one.  The kid from the other side of the tracks reminded me of Dewey from Malcolm in the Middle, but according to the IMDb he had nothing to do with this picture.  Tom Hanks, well, what can you say?  He's bedrock, pure and simple, and as you should know by now plays every character in the movie.  He's fun as the conductor and the hobo; as I and my close confidants refer to, the "old Tom Hanks" who would laugh boisterously, as in The Money Pit, gets back to his old (young) self a little bit here.  However, I couldn't help but think his Santa wasn't the best they could've had.  And for some reason Santa made me think of ... the Stay Puft Marshmallow - no, wait, wrong movie.  The Santa here made me think of the Coca Cola polar bears, but to be fair, they made a reference to them on The Daily Show this week, so that helped.  And did Santa have to do so many low swoops over the crowd?  What's that called in warfare... is it strafing?  I mean, without the machine gun fire.  I guess if I have to ask, the answer must be yes.

For those of you who like musicals... The soundtrack features a Rogue's Gallery of traditional Christmas favorites and some new songs which I'm having trouble remembering at this moment.

The press is hailing Polar Express as a triumph in animation, specifically the motion capture kind.  Meanwhile, the crew at Pixar is going "So what are we?  Chopped liver?", but they get the last laugh this weekend anyway.  What with all the effort and expense that went into the making of The Polar Express, it seems a shame that in the end, it's still just a Christmas movie.  But that's just me, I guess, the jaded cynic who can't hear the bell.

Note: I haven't read the book so I don't know how the imagery compares.

Pop philosophy: Welcome to your life.  There's no turning back.  But sometimes, you gotta make the choice: on or off the train?  And, of course, you gotta like the clip they picked for the TV, "Well, let's see.  No photo with a department store Santa", but then again, have they been to a department store lately?

Inter-movie motifs: What would it be without them?  There's an ode to the streak left behind by the Delorean at the beginning of Back to the Future Part II.  And, of course, the feather from Forrest Gump, which itself did an ode to the first Back to the Future.  Zemeckis at least resisted the temptation to work in a Back to the Future-style ending with something zooming up to the camera.

At the end, when the hobo disappears for the last time, I couldn't help but think of Jenny in Forrest Gump when she disappears as she walks through Forrest's front yard at night.  It involved computerized Vista-Glide technology, and like the hobo, was also a little bit grainy.

Contact - During the Northern Lights sequence I thought of the scene with Jodie Foster and David Morse on the distant planet.

What Lies Beneath - As significant as John Hughes' fascination with all things chiropractic since Home Alone, Zemeckis explores his new-found obsession with people who live in glass houses, or at least walk on glass floors.

More than I first thought!

Shout Out to Peter Jackson: Victoria Burrows, mega-caster of Lord of the Rings.  What, no subcontracting for WETA?  Oh no, now they're tackling another epic book: Narnia!!!

And of course, like Joe Dante, was able to work in his love of 50s music.  And hubcaps.

And did I detect a slight jab at Steven Spielberg?  Check out that wall of kids, as we focus in on one named Steven who says over and over "I didn't do it!"

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-so sayeth the Movie Hooligan

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