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Posted November 30, 2004


Fantasy Or Reality?:  Chilly Ride On "The Polar Express"


Rick Mitchell

Two reasons have been advanced for the commercial disappointment of this film to date: the poor timing of its release at the same time as “The Incredibles” and “The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie” and imperfections in the technology.  I'd like to advance a third: that this is the first CGI example of why I've felt most of the recent traditional cel animated films have failed, that they were the wrong subjects to do in animation for the actual target audience.

What is the “actual target audience" for “The Polar Express”?  The main characters are kids who are losing their belief in Santa Claus.  This is usually kids between 8 and 10 years-old.  Kids at that age are also more aware of the difference between live action and animation, and are more likely to be affected emotionally by something they perceive as real as opposed to what is clearly a "cartoon."  This is particularly true with the action sequences Zemeckis supposedly added to the story, and which are played up in the film's trailers.  For them, “Polar Express” looks no different than “Titan A.E.” (2000), “Treasure Planet” (2002), “Sinbad” (2003), or the other cel animated films this age group and their older brethren have rejected.

On the other hand, the old fashioned cel animated “SpongeBob Squarepants” attracted all ages, as “Lilo & Stitch” (2002) had done before it, and like the
CGI cartoon features because it, and they, were clearly cartoons.  When animation was limited to the seven minute "selected short subject" package, the lush paintings and detailed drawings of feature length cartoons were enough of a novelty to enthrall all ages.  No one seems to have noted, however, that after “Snow White” (1937) Disney increasingly moved away from photo-realistic depictions of humans and by the Fifties, even heroines like “Cinderella” (1950) and “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) were slightly caricatured.  Today, when kids have ready access to all forms of animation any time they want it, the novelty value is lost.

At the same time, as they reach that "questioning" age, "simulated" live depictions of reality are more likely to stimulate their imaginations and emotions, even as they stimulate curiosity about how these depictions.  The roll call of live action films whose adroit use of production design, cinematography, picture and sound editing, music, and re-recording have affected the dreams--and nightmares--of generations of young and old include “The Wizard Of Oz” (1939), “The Thief Of Bagdad” (1940), “Beauty And The Beast” (1946), “tom thumb” (1958), “The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958), “The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver” (1960), the fairy tale sequences in “The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm” (1962), and “Mary Poppins” (1964); notable failures include Disney's “Babes In Toyland (1961), “The Blue Bird” (1976), and “The Wiz” (1978) because someone in creative control didn't get it.

It's surprising that Bob Zemeckis didn't get it on “The Polar Express.”  Actually, any type of animation might have been a commercial draw for the basic, somewhat saccharine story, and more traditional techniques would have gotten around the main complaint of the blank, expressionless nature of the human characters.  In fact, rather than the dubiously necessary motion capture technique on which Zemeckis spent $170,000,000, it might have been better to use the green screen/
CGI background technique of “Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow,” which only cost $70,000,000 according to one source.  Where that film failed is that too many in the audience had no frame of reference for the fantasy world it was depicting, such a technique might have created the "magic" to attract its target audience.

And actually it may be time to rethink the role
CGI has come to play in contemporary films.  Two clips screened at an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences program last month were vivid reminders of how the limitations of locked down cameras or old fashioned motion control actually worked to enhance the reality of effects sequences because filmmakers were forced to do shots that could believably be photographed by a camera.  CGI has brought to live action the kind of shots the Disney company used to do with their multiplane camera, beautiful to look at, but we knew we were watching paintings, not recordings of reality.  The overuse of such shots in recent films like “Van Helsing” and “The Chronicles Of Riddick” mitigated against audience involvement in them and probably were major contributors to their rejection by audiences who were tired of such phoniness.
Bob Zemeckis has been a pioneer in using new technology to enhance the film watching experience and was clearly hoping to awe audiences of all ages with the technology of “The Polar Express.”  He may have succeeded better with the Imax 3-D version (which I can't see at the moment), but otherwise miscalculated with this subject.  Perhaps the entire industry needs to rethink its approach to using
CGI for this purpose.



Rick Mitchell is a film editor, film director, and film historian.  He lives in Los Angeles.

© 2004 Rick Mitchell.  All rights reserved

Artwork © 2004 Warner Bros. Entertaiment Inc. All rights reserved.




Copyright 2004 FSTD

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