Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Polar Express: The Last Temptation of Santa?
Near the end of The Polar Express, when the film is starting to get dangerously close to the sentimentality and false nostalgia that inevitably enters even the best Christmastime movies, the young hero finally sees Santa Claus. (Yes, when he gets to the North Pole he meets Santa Claus; if you are shocked by this or consider it a "spoiler", deal with it.) Having already made much of the need to "believe", director Robert Zemeckis seems to be pushing the religious allusions a bit heavily by making a glowing bearded Santa who almost resembles Max Von Sydow's Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told. As the hero looks up in awe, the screen turned white...What the hey? An animated Christmas dropping a nod to The Last Temptation of Christ?
As it turned out, the film really had broken, not from the mystical force of Santa's appearance but from an overloaded platter in the projection booth. That amazingly coincidental interruption aside, The Polar Express is a fast-moving and frequently amazing film, perhaps the most ambitious CGI feature to date. I was skeptical that Chris Van Allsburg's slim book (32 pages, half of which are illustrations) could be turned into a feature-length film without a lot of unnecessary dead weight added but Zemeckis major invention, turning the train voyage into a series of action-filled setpieces, makes sense. The quasi-realistic style, is a little unsettling at first, but corresponds to the rich texture of Van Allsburgs' own excellent artwork and eventually gives the characters more human-like dimensions than usual for an animated film. Another addition, a hobo who dispatches advice from above the train, is equally well-placed.
So despite getting a bit carried away with Christmas nostalgia (Why does this holiday make filmmakers think that the entire world is a suburban village landscaped by Norman Rockwell? And what is it about Christmas that makes the hero of almost every seasonal movie or tv special worry that he's celebrating it incorrectly?) The Polar Express is an impressive visual adventure, modeled,like many other fantasies, on a theme park ride but also giving the non-stop ride a sense of spiritual meaning. (There are many moments that recall the consderably slower but no less loaded ride of a floating feather in an earlier Zemeckis film...)
Fans of Van Allburg's book will be relieved: The Polar Express complements its source beautifully, (and considerably more gracefully than an earlier Van Allsburg adaptation Jumanji)but won't displace it on the shelves of childrens literature. But if there are any producers out there holding on to options on Goodnight Moon or Pat the Bunny, don't expect to be so lucky.

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