A few random comments from me and my brothers Matt and Dan while watching The Polar Express with our step-nephews Christmas day (and some I made up):
"See, he's thinking there, and reaching conclusions based upon what he's learned and observed. That'll have to stop."
"Remember, Jacob, don't imitate what you see in this movie. I know you love trains, but if a strange train pulls up to your front door in the middle of the night, it is not okay to get on."
"Same goes for if they offer you hot chocolate."
"Is it just me, or does the kid look like George Bush?"
"See, even though all of the kids on this train were invited on personally by the conductor, they're apparently still in big trouble if they don't have their ticket. This teaches kids a valuable lesson about adults being insane and being willing to throw you off a train if you don't follow their rules."
"Apparently, only about a dozen kids a year get to learn Santa is real. The rest of you have to deal with the torture of uncertainty."
"Wow, that was close - the engine just barely got past the ice! But I guess the rest of the kids drowned."
"Especially the poor one."
"Oh, yes, especially the poor one."
"I'm warning you right now, if you pull on my beard like that, you're the one who will be making the funny noises."
"Man, apparently nothing but trouble comes of being nice to the poor kid."
"You know, we should probably dial it back. Jacob may not be ready for our level of sarcasm."
"Really, this movie should be banned for the lessons it teaches kids. Remember, Jacob, even if your mom hasn't specifically told you this, don't try to walk across icy rails a hundred feet in the air in your bare feet at the North Pole."
"No, you won't fall off, but your skin will freeze to the metal, and pulling you off will hurt like... uh, the dickens."
"I so wish we had a pneumatic tube system to get around campus."
"That's a lot of elves."
"Well, Santa is planning to attack Mordor."
"So, let me keep track - Tom Hanks plays the kid, his father, the conductor, and the hobo, right?"
"He's also Santa Claus."
"Well, yeah, I knew that. I mean, have you ever seen the two of them in the same room?"
"Explains why he gets $20M a picture - this operation doesn't look cheap."
"Hey, where'd that other kid come from? He wasn't on the runaway train and pneumatic tube!"
"You know, if this guy doesn't believe in Santa by now, he's the dumbest kid on Earth."
"So, wait - those reindeer, who a couple of elves were able to keep on the ground, are going to life that giant bag."
"Which, by the way, looks like the world's largest meatball."
"Uh, at this point, kid you don't 'believe' - you know."
"All he asked for was the bell, and it fell out his pocket?"
"Right - it's like the aliens in Contact."
"Aw, isn't that heartwarming. That poor kid just made the best friends of his life and he'll never see them again. They don't even know each others' names so they can write to each other."
"What's the note with the bell say? 'Looks like you dropped this, Mr. C."
"AH-HA, so we were half-right: Tom BOSLEY is Santa!"
... um, anyway, on to the reviews:
Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3-D
* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2005 at the Aquarium (first-run)
Here's the thing about Magnificent Desolation: It's full of beautiful 3-D images, reminiscences about the Apollo program, information on the history of space travel. It is awesome to see, immersive, and exciting. You can bring kids and watch them be awed and amazed. You'll feel the same way.
And then, after you've left the theater, halfway to the subway, it'll dawn on you: It's all special effects.
It's special effects to be proud of, to be sure: Renedered at a high enough resolution to look good on an IMAX screen. Twice, so that it's in 3-D. The physics of regolith being kicked up and scattering in an airless, one-sixth gee environment look right. I oohed and aaahed shamelessly. It's the next best thing to being there.
Except... Why are we settling for that? I had my thirty-second birthday about a week after seeing this. Men have not walked on the moon in my lifetime. We shouldn't have to use CGI to show kids what it would be like to walk on the moon; we should be able to send a camera crew up on a commercial spacecraft. I don't imagine I'd be able to afford to take my vacation there, but it's frustrating to think how much could have been done in the last three decades but hasn't been.
Kids won't mind; thirty-three years is an inconceivable amount of time to them. And everyone should be able to look at this and see the visual splendor and the astonishing achievement that landing on the moon was. Executive producer and narrator Tom Hanks loves the space program and has full-on hero worship for the people involved, and that shines through. He and the other filmmakers walk a nice line creating a film that is accessible and entertaining to children while also being fairly enjoyable for adults. Many other IMAX films with an aim to educate and advocate as well as entertain hae falled far short of that.
But, man, it's all special effects. I love special effects, and I'm the first to sneer at somebody who dismisses something for being CGI, but when I go to a movie in this sort of environment - a museum of sorts, a place that celebrates science, that shows you real amazing things - having to see a recreation of a place where we were able to send people with cameras over thirty years ago serves as a reminder of how sometimes, things really aren't what they used to be.
* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2005 at the Aquarium (first-run)
At some point this year, there was a thread on the HBS/EFC forums that started from a a picture of a gigantic tiger shark being hauled in by some Cape Cod fisherman participating in a contest titled "why do [people] have to kill sharks?" My answer - because they taste delicious - was not popular. I was, in part, being provocative, despite the truthfulness of my answer. Sharks are, in addition to being good eating, magnificent creatures; the ocean's alpha predator and vital parts of the eocsystem for millions of years, and worth preserving.
It's the latter perspective you're going to be getting from this motion picture; it is, after all, presented by the Ocean Futures Society rather than, say, Legal Sea Foods. It is, thankfully, less heavy-handed than it could have been, despite being narrated by a turtle who serves as our guide. It's pitched toward kids, obviously, but is more interested in imparting information than guilt.
And, of course, pretty pictures. IMAX, and 3-D IMAX especially, puts the audience directly in a picture in a way few other media can, and an ocean setting frees the audience from the bounds of gravity so that amazing things can come from any corner of the screen and move in any direction. Director Jean-Jacques Mantello and cinematographer Gavin McKinney make good use of this three-dimensionality, sometimes overloading the eyes with fantastic imagery. They're also not picky about their subjects; if they got good shots of rays, turtles, or sea lions, that makes it into the movie.
IMAX movies of this sort are, once you're aware of the basic information they're trying to get across, all about looking good. One can't deny Sharks does that; it's a strikingly beautiful piece of film.
* * (out of four) (* * ½ in 3-D)
Seen 5 November 2005 at the Loews Boston Common #16 (first-run) (3-D digital projection)
Disney is following now. It's a sad state of affairs, when you think about it; a bit over a decade ago, other studios were forming animation departments in the hopes of cashing in on the success of Disney features from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King. They didn't succeed until they stopped trying to out-Disney Disney, and now, in the wake of that success, we get Chicken Little - a kind of sad attempt by Disney to beat DreamWorks at their own game.
It's all there - a CGI world designed to mimic present-day America (except with barnyard animals), a celebrity voice cast, a soundtrack that's a mishmash of pop songs from different eras, and a string of pop culture references masquerading as jokes. If you stripped the vanity card off the front, what's the actual difference between this and Robots or SharkTale? Not much. A certain part of me says that's okay, that Disney doesn't have to be special, but if a movie is going to aim to tread familiar ground rather than be different, it should at least tread that familiar ground nimbly, and this is something Chicken Little fails to manage.
Read the rest at HBS.
The Polar Express
* * ¼ (out of four) (* * * in 3-D)
Seen 4 December 2005 at the New Englad Aquarium (re-issue) (3-D IMAX Experience)
When I saw The Polar Express in IMAX 3-D the morning of December 4th (I was trying to cram as many movies into a 36-hour period at the end of a "Movie Watch-a-Thon" fundraiser as possible and it was Boston's only 10am show), I was duly amazed by the 3-D presentation but left rather cold by pretty much everything else. Pretty, I thought, but pointless in another medium. I emended that assessment upon seeing my step-nephew not bounce off the walls for an hour and a half watching his new DVD on Christmas Day, despite the, um, "gentle mockery" of the movie delivered by my brothers and me. Keeping the attention of a six-year-old with a stocking's worth of Christmas candy in his system doesn't make The Polar Express a good movie, but does mark it as potentially useful.
To give the movie its due, when The Polar Express is operating as a roller-coaster ride - much more literally than many of the movies to which this sobriquet is applied - with the titular train zooming through a succession of lovingly-rendered perils on the way to the North Pole, it can be an awesome sight, especially if you're seeing it on a screen six stories high and through a pair of polarized lenses. Unlike with Chicken Little, I strongly suspect director Robert Zemeckis had 3-D presentation in mind when making this movie, although he keeps the throwing things at the audience to a minimum in order to make it palatable for people seeing it in conventional theaters or on DVD. The audience's stomach lurches sympathetically when the train zooms down a hill or skids on a frozen lake, and more than one kid near me in the theater tried to reach out and catch snowflakes. When this is a movie about things, it is an astonishingly staged film whose visuals will be difficult to top.
When it's a movie about people, though, it is one of the creepiest things ever produced as children's entertainment...
Read the rest at HBS.