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Archive for December, 2010

‘The Polar Express’ Now on DVD

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

PolarExpress_forWeb.jpgWhen The Polar Express was released theatrically in 2004, it was lauded for its animation, and the quality of that animation is retained on the DVD recently released by Warner Home Entertainment. The animation is so exceptional, there are sequences when, watching it, you may well forget it is animation and view it as a live-action feature film. Director Robert Zemeckis made use of the technique of motion capture, in which sensors are attached to the actors’ bodies and their movements are then recorded electronically as they perform the characters’ roles on an empty soundstage. The digital information is then used to create the animation, merging it into the three-dimensional CGI world.

The story, however, does not flow as smoothly as the animation, as some sequences seem to be disconnected to anything else. Based on the book of the same name by Caldecott Medal winner Chris Van Allsburg, it centers on a boy of about eight years old who is just on the cusp of the “is Santa Clause real?” stage of childhood. The film opens on Christmas Eve, with the unnamed “hero boy” lying in bed listening in hope against hope for the sound of Santa’s sleigh bells. What he hears instead — and feels, for it shakes his room like an earthquake as it rumbles to his yard — is a passenger train: the Polar Express.

As no one else in hero boy’s family — younger sister, mother, father — seems to hear the train, perhaps it and hero boy’s adventures are a dream. There are scenes and characters that come in and out of the story with no defined reason, which is an attribute of dreams. But the animation is so life-like, it works against a dream effect if such is, in fact, what’s intended.

Body movements, especially musculature around the characters’ mouths when they speak, replicates that of a human body very closely, and the characters and scenery have little of the cartoon quality usually found in animated films. This makes all the more noticeable the lack of any human warmth to the story; we can identify with the characters but we don’t feel for them.

Hero boy is invited by an indifferent conductor to board the train. He finds other children already on board, and one more joins them at the next stop. One is a lost and lonely boy, one is a know-it-all boy — perhaps aspects of hero boy’s personality? — and one is a caring and mothering girl. These four, singly or in various combinations, share adventures with the conductor, a mysterious hobo who rides atop the train and, eventually, with Santa himself.

The train takes them through such action adventures as a broken-brake run on terrifying stretches of roller-coaster track and an attempted crossing of a frozen lake of which the ice begins to crack apart and the resulting waves threaten to submerge the train. Scenery is beautifully composed, from snow-covered forest to breathtaking Northern Lights to homes and towns. Ultimately, hero boy’s quest for truth puts it back to his own mind with the message, “Sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.”

Writes 15-year-old KIDS FIRST! reviewer Phoenix Diller, “The film, like the book, captures the Christmas magic and everything Christmas represents. My favorite part of the film is when the boy runs outside in his pajamas to the magical Polar Express at the beginning of the film. The train is so believable and the sounds are very much the sounds of a real train! It’s a very magical scene!”

Special effects bring both power and realism to the action. This, plus the premise of the story, makes the film suited more to an older child than a very young one.

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‘Opposite Day’ available on DVD

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

OppositeDay.JPGA bad experiment gone worse releases a mist over a small town, and … viola! A kid’s wish comes true and parents and kids do a switcheroo: Parents act like little kids and kids take on the attitudes and behaviors of their parents. How this works with adults who aren’t parents is one of many questions that severely test the standards of cinematic “suspension of disbelief.” However, the thesis of Opposite Day, released by Anchor Bay for home entertainment on DVD, is sure to enchant kids eight to 13, who typically feel their parents give them too many rules and too little of their time. The good news for parents is that this fantasy ride comes with a moral: It’s tough being a grown-up and kids should appreciate their parents.

Opening scenes in an experimental laboratory introduce the viewer to a harried scientist (French Stewart) and a device with the potential to make an adult regress to childishness. With an abrupt change, the camera then swings through a small town, giving a quick visual overview of the people — and their personalities — who populate it, finally coming to rest in a schoolyard. “If kids ran the world, it would be so much better,” says one boy.

Sammy Benson (Billy Unger), the boy who speaks these prophetic words, and his sister Carla (Ariel Winter) leave town for a vacation with their grandparents. Tucking the children into bed, Grandma Benson (Renée Taylor) points to a night sky ablaze with twinkling lights and says of one of them, “Oh look, it’s the first star” (another test of the viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief — but, to be fair, there is one star considerably larger than the others that she might be pointing to, and, of course, there needs to be a wishing star to move the plot forward).

Sammy jumps on the opportunity. “I wish that kids ruled the world.”

Meanwhile, the harried scientist has been goaded by the lab’s director to show breakthroughs of some sort that could be used to make a buck, and he puts his own son into a device he’s been working on to enable parents to understand their babies’ talk. But uh oh — that’s the device we already saw turn a mature chimp infantile.

Understandably upset at his father for putting him at risk, Chaz (Dylan Cash), the scientist’s son, rampages through the lab, pulling wires to disable the device, which then malfunctions and releases the malignant mist that turns things “opposite” throughout the town.

When Grandma and Grandpa Benson (Dick Van Patten) bring Sammy and Carla home, they are mystified to see kids in their parents’ work clothes (resized to perfectly fit their smaller bodies — a seeming anomaly that is addressed in short order) doing their jobs and mouthing their sayings, while the adults (who, fortunately, get to stay in clothes that fit) play hopscotch and act out childishly. Of the predictable sight gags that fill the bulk of the movie’s 81 minutes, some are funny, some start funny but drag on too long, and some — like one kid ad exec who too perfectly mimics her adult counterpart — are simply disturbing.

To Sammy, the situation is perfect — or would be if only a kid-cop hadn’t arrested his grandparents for infractions that began with Grandpa Benson being “too young” to drive a car. And then, it doesn’t stay fun for long. “Being in charge is hard work,” Sammy admits after a day of taking care of his childish parents (Pauly Shore and Colleen Crabtree).

Sammy and Carla learn about what happened at the lab, realize it wasn’t Sammy’s wish upon the star that caused the madness, and head over to the lab to make everything back to “right” again. Chase scenes and fight scenes ensue, with the two youngsters taking on the lab’s security forces (Carla) and a gang of Ninjas (Sammy) set on them by friend-turned-evil Chaz.

But Sammy and Carla can’t make things normal again without scientific know-how. Will Chaz agree to help them? “We can take care of our parents better than they could take care of us,” Chaz tells them. To which Carla argues, “Parents look after us unconditionally.” Chaz, of course, has recent reason to question that, but the writers instead hark back to an early scene in which Chaz tells of his dad’s love and expresses only a wish that they had more time together. Sammy throws in the clincher: “Why rush growing up?”

With only seconds to go, they try to stop the attack Chaz had set in motion that would take the phenomenon global, and also try to undo the effect in their own town.

Outtakes during the closing credits share some of the silly moments on set during filming, giving a glimpse into the playful “child” in cast members old and young.

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