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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

THE POLAR EXPRESS (article first published : 2004-12-4)

If for nothing else, The Polar Express will go down as a benchmark film in the genre of animation. The reason is that it takes a good step or two further the experimentation that first impressed with the Gollum character in Peter Jackson's marvellous The Lord of the Rings.

The process, dubbed Performance Capture, is a motion capture technique allowing computer animators to fully capture facial expressions and body movements of actors.

And in The Polar Express, directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on a popular, short picture book by Chris Van Allsburg, the work done is truly an amazing progression from the early experimentations of the flop Final Fantasy.

The process, it must be said, still has a way to go to be fully convincing, the human characters in The Polar Express sometimes taking on a plastic, mannequin look. But the progress is, indeed, impressive, particularly when it comes to marrying mouth movement to speech - and the story, if a little drawn-out and episodic, is a sweet and timeous treat for the festive season, albeit aimed mostly at the very young.

Sugary and sentimental with lots of gloss, some song and a sprinkle of finale moralising, the movie has Tom Hanks, his features and mannerisms well realised, voicing five different characters.

The story is of a young boy who is starting to doubt Santa Claus really exists. But he is forced into having a rethink when, one snowy Christmas Eve, he is jolted awake by his shaking house heralding the arrival of a 1930s steam train, the conductor of which (the look and voice of Hanks) welcomes him aboard for a journey to the North Pole.

Herds of caribou, frozen lakes, an engimatic tramp and hills that turn the train journey into an exhilarationg rollercoaster ride are among the adventures facing our young hero, who makes friends, helps bring some warmth into a life of a lonely lad from the wrong side of the tracks and gets to make an important decision about the importance of belief and the Christmas spirit.

The film, highlights of which include a sequence involving dancing waiters and hundreds of elves marching into a town square with a giant Christmas tree, gets a rating of 7/10. - Billy Suter




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