Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Polar Express—Incredible Animation Effects


Chris van Alsberg is a sculptor who sat down one day to write a children's book. Twenty-five years later, his creations are still stunning us from the printed page and the movie screen alike. The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, published first, was a Caldecott Honor winner. A few years later, The Polar Express won the Caldecott Medal. Several years after that, Jumanji hit the bookshelves and took another Caldecott for Alsberg, becoming an exciting movie with Robin Williams and a young Kirsten Dunst.

But even though The Polar Express won honors first, it waited to become a movie until the state of the art could match Arlsberg's sweet vision. The animated movie starring the voices of Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari*, directed by Robert Zemeckis, opened in theatres last year.

I'll confess my own agoraphobia, which prevents me from enjoying opening nights of popular movies. It's not uncommon for me to wait until a film has lost all its legs before going to see it in a theatre. So I thought this weekend would be perfect for the Christmas-themed Polar Express. I walked into the theatre 15 minutes before the movie was due to start, and saw three patrons already waiting. Before I had the salty layer off the top of my popcorn, the seats below me began to fill. Children and their parents, small groups of adults—this movie must have more legs than I thought!

As the movie started, I began to see why. First, it is no cartoon. The detail in the animation is breath-taking. Eyes are expressive, faces are realistic and hair and clothing move in life-like ways, but that is not even half of the detail I saw. Snowflakes appear to be rendered, then blurred for distance. Flurries of them waft and drift in flumes and feathers. Handkerchiefs flutter, eyeglasses slip and steam up, wet socks cling and drip with a reality that carries the viewer into the movie.

The action of the film is split between the main character, a young boy who has lost the Christmas magic, and begun to doubt the reality of Santa Claus, and the train itself, a chuffing, racing roller-coaster ride through icy canyons and across mostly-frozen lakes. Add a free-loading ghost just solid enough to perform a rescue or two, and you've got some thrills going. In fact, two young girls sitting on either side of their Daddy cuddled up with their faces hidden under his arms as the train sped down a 179-degree incline, one of them whimpering, "I'm scared!"

"It's okay," he said as the rest of us chuckled, "you don't have to watch this part."

The story is schmaltzy, but we must expect that in a Christmas flick. It's a sweet sentimentality that is missing in many over-cynical Christmas movies today. And if instant friendship between a little black girl, a kid from the "wrong side of the tracks" and a skeptical ten-year-old boy is part of the story, we scarcely notice the stretch. After all, Christmas is magic, and it's a magic train, the Polar Express.

*If the name Peter Scolari rings a bell, he was the other half of the Bosom Buddies, the 1980 TV sit-com in which he and Tom Hanks first became known as actors. Zathora, the book sequal to Jumanji, was released in 2002.


Blogger samraat said...

4/03/2010 9:38 PM  

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