The Polar Express, The Incredibles and the Reigning Pixel
By Fernando F. Croce

"I don't work for toons." That's Bob Hoskins' cartoonphobic shamus in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, though it could easily be my own credo when it comes to animated films. My beef is not so much with the art of cartooning per se (I got no problem mentioning Looney Tunes doyen Chuck Jones and French transcendentalist Robert Bresson in the same sentence) than with the soulless industry I associate with it -- namely Disney, a company that has yet to find a culture whose folklore it could not degrade into shiny audiences packages. The switch from hand-painted cels to computer-generated pixels of the last few years, mostly courtesy of Pixar, has renewed viewer interest in animation, though the wiseass pop-referencing of a Shrek or Shark Tale gives me little reason for hope. (I am deliberately leaving out such hybrids as the marionette epic Team America: World Police, though, judging from the recent election results, its message of political ignorance has resonated with the public.)

So I prefer human beings to painted celluloid -- bah humbug, and all that. Anyway, I checked out two new high-profile CGI fests, The Polar Express and The Incredibles, with an open mind and hungry eyes, and found expected lugubriousness but also unexpected joy, respectively. The more heavily hyped of the two, The Polar Express is before anything else the culmination of the new pixilated movement that has, from Final Fantasy to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, worked its way toward the complete substitution of warm flesh for cold titanium on movie screens. Technology is all -- who needs actors? Apparently the animators still do here, at least for the movie's raison d'etre stunt, a computadorization of live performers into "realistic" 3-D characters that, once all has been said and done, is basically a high-tech update of Ralph Bakshi's early '80s experiments in humans-to-toons rotoscoping (American Pop, Fire and Ice).

The process also allows Tom Hanks to pop up in no less than six roles throughout The Polar Express, including as the gruff conductor of the title's fantasy train, a cranky hobo, Santa Claus, and even the prepubescent "Hero Boy," whose voice belongs to Daryl Sabara but whose expressions have been molded after the actor's. Based on Chris Van Allsburg's children's book, the movie follows the young Doubting Thomas and a bunch of other tots on a trek to the North Pole to renovate their belief in ol' St. Nick. Robert Zemeckis directed, and, from Used Cars to Back to the Future to Forrest Gump, his reactionary brand of whimsy has continually been softened (evaded?) by the palpable pleasure he derives from his SFX toys. Early on, the camera tracks a golden train ticket through wolf packs, into a baby bird's mouth and down a snow-capped mountain before floating it back to the express -- a single continuous shot, "impossible" in real-life, but hit with a smack here.

Like Zemeckis' Contact, The Polar Express is about faith in what cannot be seen, yet the director, who can like his mentor Spielberg link the glitz of special-effects to the emotions of his characters, instead settles for hollow blockbuster spectacle and rollercoaster thrills (no chance to hurl the young heroes down a vertiginous toboggan dip gets missed). For all the lip service about believing, the movie is all about technical wizardry, which to me (along with more than a couple of tykes at the screening) seemed more creepy than endearing -- the characters so painstakingly recreated for the screen have no physical sense of being, the smoothness of their pinky flesh tones rubbery, inhuman. It's a tour de force of new-school artifice, but it only helps to conceal the project's odd mix of yuletide sentiment and mechanized trickery. It is typical of the movie's unaddressed clashing ideologies that the imagery suggests not only Ronald Dahl and George Lucas, but also Orwell and Riefenstahl.

Where The Polar Express labors to reinvent the human shape as fed through computer tubes, The Incredibles happily keeps its clan of undercover superheroes squarely in the razzing Dudley Do-Right tradition -- animation less bound to set models, thus freer, more expressive. At the start, chiseled, massively shinned Mr. Incredible halts shootouts, rescues kittens, detonates old archenemies and fends off fans, all on his way to the chapel to wed fellow world-saver Elastigirl. A slew of lawsuits spells out the public's message ("Fit in or get out"), and the formerly dynamic duo is forced to hang their secret-identity masks and settle for hiding in suburbia -- him as a slumped cubicle dweller, her as a tract home hausfrau raising their three kids, teen brooder Violet, zippy kid Dash and bouncing Baby Jack. However, when a new top-secret plan requires his comic-book prowess once more, Mr. Incredible packs his expanded waistline into the ol' supersuit and races to the rescue, with the missus and the kids right behind him.

Far jazzier, funnier and more exciting than The Polar Express, The Incredibles is also a much more politically resonant work. Picking up thematic strands from his previous, terrific animated feature The Iron Giant, writer-director Brad Bird (a cartoon auteur?) tackles family dynamics, idol-worship, mass comformity and, finally, spiritual resurrection, all within the context of pop cultural heritage (vide the witty '60s designs, the ersatz Henry Mancini-Al Hirt soundtrack, the fondness for comic-book lore). Even the "performances" are admirable: superb voice work by Craig T. Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee and especially Holly Hunter, whose salty twang teased me for recognition for half the movie. Filled to the brim with breathless chases and explosions, the film nevertheless stays in the mind as one of the few Pixar products to sport a human pulse -- Bird packs more punch into a throwaway shot of Mrs. Incredible checking out how her ass looks after so many years as a mom than The Polar Express can claim in all its seamless gimmickry.

Reviewed November 16, 2004.

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