Animated action and reaction
'Polar Express' pushes envelope, but gets pushed back, too
By Todd Leopold
Tom Hanks in full performance-capture regalia -- and as the conductor -- in "The Polar Express"
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(CNN) -- In the E.L. Doctorow novel "Ragtime," an early 20th-century immigrant flips pages of drawings for a child, making figures run back and forth.
How far animation -- and technology -- have come since then.
It's been less than 100 years since Winsor McCay combined live action with animation with his "Gertie the Dinosaur" cartoons, less than 80 years since "Steamboat Willie" introduced Mickey Mouse, less than 60 years since ENIAC, the first modern computer, was first switched on, less than 20 years since the Dire Straits video "Money for Nothing" brought computer animation to a mass audience perhaps only dimly aware such things were possible.
In the last decade or so, computer animation has become the dominant form of animation in films. The "Toy Story" movies, "Ice Age," "Shrek" have all been major box-office successes, and "The Incredibles" is on its way.
Now "The Polar Express," which opened Wednesday, is trying to push the technology a little more.
Along with the computer animation, "Express" made extensive use of performance-capture technology. Star Tom Hanks -- who plays five roles -- and other performers wore hundreds of sensors as they performed their parts, and computers were used to create characters with those actions, which were then inserted into the film.
The technology has a lot of promise. Articles in Newsweek and The New York Times have touted possibilities, which extend to the use of actors' performances long after the actors themselves are dead.
But technology without heart (and a good script) doesn't make a movie, and a number of critics -- including CNN.com's Paul Clinton -- have carped that the film doesn't measure up to its computers.
Eye on Entertainment switches on.
"The Polar Express" is, indeed, a technical marvel. The backgrounds and objects are rendered with incredible precision, and it's obvious that every penny is up on the screen.
But I can remember seeing the previews months ago and thinking how creepy the humans seemed. Yes, the film is trying to copy the painterly images of Chris Van Allsburg's children's book -- a slim, remarkable volume about a child who has become skeptical about Santa Claus -- but there's a big difference between images frozen on a page and moving in a film.
CNN.com critic Clinton felt the same way, saying that the lack of emotion in the characters' eyes made them appear "soul dead." Other critics had the same assessment: The New York Times' Manohla Dargis characterized it as "grave and disappointing," The Boston Globe's Ty Burr said it was "peopled by dead-eyed mannequins," and The Kansas City Star's Robert W. Butler called it "ponderous."
The film is currently earning a 62 percent positive rating from the critical assessment site Rottentomatoes.com, a barely passing grade.
But the viewers who liked it really liked it, and they've been passionate in their support. The Orlando Sentinel, The Washington Post and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film thumbs up, with the latter praising the creepy edge of the film as adding dimension to the Christmas story.
And then there are the e-mails we've received at CNN.com, many of which have slammed Clinton's review as out of touch. Obviously, people are feeling very protective of this movie.
Whether "The Polar Express" is everybody's cup of tea -- or silicon-spiked eggnog -- I'll leave to the reader. Reviews are merely a guide, a bit of information and opinion, and not the final word on a film, book, record or whatever. Reasonable people can disagree.
But great movies are more than the sum of their parts, and only time will tell whether "The Polar Express" -- as a movie -- is as powerful as its technology.
I can't help but be reminded of 1982's "Tron," the first major film to use computer animation. Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner and David Warner (and what the heck is Warner, the best villain of his time, doing now?) faced off inside a computer. It was cool looking at the time but merely looks crude now, and it's not helped by the weak script.
The "Toy Story" films will have a long life because -- even though the humans in those films also seem a bit creepy and "off" -- the stories are brilliantly constructed and cleverly written, and nobody will care if the animation gets dated.
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Paging readersClay Aiken is a double-barreled media threat on Tuesday. Not only does the former "American Idol" runner-up have a Christmas album, "Merry Christmas With Love" (RCA), due out, he has a book: "Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life" (Random House).Martin Cruz Smith's latest book, "Wolves Eat Dogs" (Simon & Schuster), comes out Tuesday.
Video centerThe seventh, and final, season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" hits DVD Tuesday. (See article on the final show.)