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Reel Life
The Polar Express
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Warner Brothers Entertainment, 2004

One of the advantages of being a technology journalist is that it gives you an excuse to buy the coolest new gadgets and go to the latest computer-animated movies without appearing to be an arrested adolescent. It was thus in a purely professional capacity that I settled into my seat one December evening in front of the 30-meter-wide Imax screen at San Francisco’s Sony Metreon, a high-tech entertainment complex.

I was there to see The Polar Express, a rendition by director Robert Zemeckis of the lovely illustrated children’s book of the same name. The movie tells the story of a young boy with doubts about the existence of Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, a magical steam-locomotive passenger train arrives on the boy’s street and transports him through snow-covered forests and mountains to the North Pole, where, of course, there really is a Santa.

The magic of the book is in the ravishing, otherwordly pastels by author-illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. I had heard about the computer wizardry poured into the film version—a digitized Tom Hanks plays six parts, including the boy and the train conductor—and I wanted to see how faithfully Zemeckis and his army of digital artists had recreated the look of Van Allsburg’s illustrations. Also, I wanted to experience the film in 3-D, which is only possible in Imax theaters with special projection equipment.

I was expecting to get a little bit of diverting holiday entertainment. Instead, I received a pair of revelations. First, today’s 3-D projection systems really work. Because the entire virtual world of The Polar Express was created in 3-D from the beginning, then flattened for presentation on regular screens, the depth of the scenes was far more palpable than what we’ve seen in previous 3-D experiments such as Disney’s Captain Eo. Falling snow seemed to permeate the theater; oncoming locomotives made me want to jump out of my seat, like the people in Edison’s first audiences.

The realism of the film’s human characters provided my second revelation. If I squinted a little, the train conductor was Tom Hanks, down to his playful eyes and wrinkled brow. Rendering human characters via computer is a treacherous business; animation houses like Pixar have historically shied away from it, sticking to toys, fish, and the like. But for The Polar Express, Zemeckis decided to take a technique called motion capture to new extremes, suiting up Hanks and other actors with reflective markers and recording their every move and facial tic as they mimed their way through the action. (Data about the markers’ positions provides a moving skeleton on which the character’s digital skin, hair, and clothing can be hung.) I had never seen such realistic digital animation in an all-animated film, and I left the theater inspired by the realization that Hollywood’s virtual tool kit was finally equal to any artist’s imagination.

That’s why I was puzzled by the chatter I found on the Internet about the supposedly “zombielike” mien of the human characters. The characters’ eyes, for example, were alleged to lack some ineffable spark of life. And alas, the film did not turn out to be the holiday blockbuster Warner Brothers had been hoping for; its 2004 box office sales of $161 million were respectable but far behind those of other computer-animated films, such as Shrek 2 ($441 million) and The Incredibles ($258 million).

What went wrong? My guess is that moviegoers, perhaps misled by the film’s prerelease hype or jaded by the breathtakingly lifelike Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, were expecting the movie’s human characters to look as real as film actors. But that’s not yet possible. In any case, that kind of verisimilitude would have marred the film. To tell an emotionally engaging story, Zemeckis needed characters just realistic enough to provoke empathy but not so realistic that the audience would lose the sense of being immersed in another world.

Given the resources now at animators’ disposal, it would be a shame if the mixed success of The Polar Express led Hollywood to blacklist computer-generated humans. How else would we ever get to see waiters dispensing hot chocolate as they dance on the ceiling of a dining car, or Tom Hanks standing atop a derailed train that’s raising a giant rooster tail of ice crystals as it careens across a starlit, frozen lake?

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