More noise than signal

The Polar Express

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

With the Christmas season already seguing into Easter, this wouldn’t really be the best time to look at such a Yule-centric kiddy flick. Still, as a testament to it’s recycling on DVD in time for Chrimble 2k5: The Night The Reindeer Died we might as well take a butchers at it.

A nameless young kid (voice by Tom Hanks, unless the credit of ‘Hero Boy’ is actually the kids given name) finds himself second guessing the whole Santa deal. Y’know, overhearing adults dissing the fat man, the whole different Santa in every department store thing (I blame Bad Santa), satellite surveillance photos of the North Pole showing a distinct lack of Grottos, that sort of thing. Going to bed on Christmas Eve a strange thing happens as the titular big train pulls up outside his house. After some slight misgivings as the mostachioed Conductor (also Tom Hanks) beckons him aboard, he boards for a magical trip up to the North Pole.

Cue a bunch of fairytale adventures which you’ve no need to really hear about. After all, I’m fairly certain telling you of some isolated incident where the train accidentally careens haphazardly across an icefield or Hero Boy and pals escapades in Santa’s toy loading bays would make a blind bit of difference to your intentions on seeing this movie. Rest assured that by the end of the piece Hero Boy has made a few wonderful new friends, the meaning of the season is reaffirmed and a child pleasing time is had by all. Well, by the kids at any rate.

This movie is just steeped in the magic of Christmas, so if you’re still feeling that at whatever age then you’ll get an almighty kick out of The Polar Express. However, if Christmas is more likely to give you an almighty kicking then there’s less of an incentive to get worked up about it. It’s very professionally told and you’re unlikely to be too upset by it, but unlike the excellent Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events there’s nothing particularly present that both kids and their parents can take notice of.

If you’ve pulled babysitting duty and this is the only option available to you then by all means take it. The story whips along at a nice pace, the voice acting’s above par, the graphics of the piece are all very pretty and while the story can descend into occasion bouts of extreme tweeness it’s still enjoyable enough to watch through without the saccharine levels causing diabetics to have fits. In terms of the actual movie, that’s pretty much all I’ve got to say so if you aren’t much of a nerd then skip to the mark at the end and take your chances from there.

Still with me? Good show. There’s one very obvious fact I’ve skipped over in the text above – this is an animated movie. Yup, chock full of CG, although it owes more to Final Fantasy – The Spirits Within than The Incredibles. While, as alluded to above it’s all very pretty the main talking point around the renderfarm watercooler isn’t the polygon count of the railway track or the lighting effects on the Aurora Borealis. Nah, the buzz about this film in a technical sense is that it’s the first use of the so called ‘performance capture’ technique.

While the now legendary Lord of the Rings trilogy went most of the way by having Andy Serkis hopping around with Elijah Woods and co, giving the other actors something to work against and the digital wizards (as I believe we’re now contractually obliged to call them) at WETA a basis to in most cases directly copy for their creation of Gollum, this is the first time the actual whole motion capture has gone all the way up to high resolution, distinct facial expression capture rather than just for the higher order motion capture. Or so we’re informed, most claims like this end up with some counter claim somewhere but let’s trust them for now.

Anyhow, it’s really quite impressive. Whether it’s actually the huge leaps we could feasibly have expected since 2001’s Final Fantasy is open for debate. Soulless tech demo it may have been, but it was a very impressive one at least as far as my addled memory recalls and there haven’t been many attempts at replicating facial expressions in the intervening years. This begs an interesting question – given that the models aren’t yet advanced enough to realistically model a human (although The Polar Express doesn’t aim to, it’s more like a storybook illustration) is an actual ‘real’ performance matted onto a ‘fake’ polygon mesh really that much more convincing than the skills of a talented animator? Okay, if these are the only two examples we consider the answer is quite clearly “Yes”, but the margin isn’t all that great.

I’m never too happy with situations like this, when there seems to be more to talk regarding some new-fangled technological aspect of the film rather than the actual story, which is what you’re ponying up your dough-ray-me for. Still, unlike Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the ‘gimmick’ doesn’t completely overpower the story. It’s hardly revolutionary and hardly suitable for anyone much over 10, but the eye candy ensures your eyes won’t be closing.

It’s not quite the dawning of a glorious digital age where actors can be moved completely out of sets and onto mocap studios as some have claimed, but perhaps it’s a significant step towards it. Whether that’s actually a good thing is left as an exercise to the reader.

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