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Animation reaches new milestone aboard ‘Polar Express’

Howie Nave
Tom Hanks provides the voice of the conductor in "The Polar Express."
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Every time I see an animated film, it amazes me just how far the technology has come. Last week, Pixar’s “The Incredibles” practically had the characters coming out of the screen in a 3-D format. This week, director (and co-writer) Robert Zemeckis’ children’s book tale, “The Polar Express,” pushes that creative visual to the point where I foresee a day when actors on the big screen will be a thing of the past and only voiceover work and CGI will remain in Hollywood. What am I saying?! As much as I have embraced the technological wizardry of the past decade, there never will be a substitute for good writing ability, no matter how fancy the geeks get on those dang contraptions. Still, because that technology is so new here, it is easy to get taken in by the effects.

Tom Hanks has multiple roles in this movie, and it is eerie hearing him no matter how much he alters his voice depending what character he is voicing. You just can’t get away from that Hanks timbre. Here he “plays” the characters of Hero Boy, the train conductor, the hobo, Santa and, in voice only, the father. As in all of his movies, Hanks pours his entire essence into this film.

This is probably one of the best family movies I have seen in the last quarter, and just in time for the holidays, too. The movie (and the book by the same name) tells the time-honored story about a kid who has doubts about whether or not there really is a Santa Claus. I thought back to a time when I first started having my doubts as well. Maybe my senior year of high school … I’m not sure. Nah – I still believe in the magic. But I didn’t have a Magical Mystery Tour train pull up in front of my house, filled with other kids, and take me to the North Pole to erase any doubts about believing.

If you are a parent, take the time and read the book to your child before seeing the movie, if you haven’t already. Besides, Chris Van Allsburg’s award-winning book isn’t that long of a read, so the mere fact that Zemeckis was able stretch this out to a feature-length journey is remarkable in itself. Oh, sure, there are moments where the journey on the train seemed a bit overdrawn (so to speak), but overall the picture was worth the admission. (OK, I didn’t have to pay to see it this time, but I will the next time I check it out.)

Director Robert Zemeckis has a history of adding some incredible wizardry to his motion pictures. Just look how he blended animation with real life in his breakthrough movie, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” My favorite still remains his “Back to the Future” trilogy. The effects along with the time traveling adventure made for some very entertaining viewing. But it was his Oscar award-winning film, “Forrest Gump,” that really gave Zemeckis his due (and also gave Hanks an Oscar).

Here he pushes the definition of what animation is, and in doing so, sets the creative bar a little bit higher. Most of the eye-opening experiences happen on the journey in and around the train. The visuals are stunning and will be lost when the DVD comes out for the small screen at home. See it now and enjoy the ride with someone. You, too, will come out believing.

I might add that, although Tom Hanks is everywhere in this movie, there are others who have lent their voices to this project, including Leslie Harter Zemeckis, Eddie Deezen, Nona M. Gaye, Steven Tyler and Tom Hanks’ “Bosom Buddies” co-star (from their TV days in the ’80s) Peter Scolari. Nice to see Peter working again.

– Howie Nave is host/manager of The Improv Comedy Club inside Harveys and reviews films for seven radio stations throughout northern California and Nevada. He hosts his own comedy and movie show every Friday and Sunday on Tahoe’s KRLT radio.


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