Sunday, December 18, 2005

17. Hearing Bells

The digitally captured Conductor (Tom Hanks) of The Polar Express tells the digitally captured Boy (Tom Hanks), "The thing about trains, it doesn't matter where they're going. What matters is deciding to get on." I agree; it was with some hesitation that I decided to board Robert Zemekis' IMAX'd to the max reinvention of Chris Van Allsburg's 1985 book, which I fondly remember reading to my children. If one were prone to the snide, one could see it as a deeply yuppified book, pretty and buttery and smooth, self-assured in its graphics, almost deadpan in its affirmation of the virtues of sharing, memory, and faith. But that's all right. It is a pretty book, with some redemptive, evocative moments--my children sharply remember the wolves, and I vividly recall the roar that went up from the assembled elves when Santa arrived. It is a relatively effective dream-story, in the vein of Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There, but not as eerie. And it does quietly affirm its virtues without guile, like a Chronicle of Narnia.

But the movie is a goggle-eyed thrill, quiet as dts 6.1, dreamy as The Transporter. Now, I've gotten extra good at separating movies from their sources, so I won't mourn the loss of the unassuming solemnity of the book. The movie has enough problems on its own, not the least of which is the strange fluidity of its digitization. Digital cartoons always seem to be shot underwater. Everything floats, as Pennywise the Clown says in It--and the result is almost as creepy as Stephen King's book, at least to my eyes. The faces seem to come at you, slowly, hovering a bit. Sometimes this works, as when the children gaze at the world unfolding before them in the train or at the North Pole. But otherwise it's distracting, unless you need some zip and slide; then the digital format sweeps you up like leaves in a gale.

The movie works, though, only when it slows down--or holds back, as in some of the North Pole scenes, when the children explore the innards of the world's biggest toyshop. As I've mentioned earlier, those Christmas oldies floating on the soundtrack during this sequence are my favorite thing about the movie. They evoke the sense of quiet you get even in the smallest snowbound back yard, or in the dust-suspended calm of the best week of the year, between Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, as you loll around in a house devoid of the panic and rush of getting there--unlike Zemekis' Express, which slams around like a last-minute shopper clawing for that one remaining Xbox 360, even though he knows it'll be obsolete by summer. Feh. You can have it; if you need me, I'll be outside, over there.

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