Rolling 'Polar Express' melts fears of techno turnoff


Last summer, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow proved a box-office fizzle -- the latest in a string of computer-enhanced movies that were ballyhooed as revolutionary advances in the art of filmmaking, but failed to connect with audiences.

Moviegoers, however, may not find newfangled technology as off-putting as some industry analysts were beginning to think.

Though its box-office performance was mediocre during its first two weeks in theaters, Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express, based on Chris Van Allsburg's best-selling Christmas fable, is picking up serious steam. Featuring Tom Hanks in five roles ranging from a boy to Santa Claus, the movie pulled in more than $20 million over Thanksgiving weekend -- a startling 24 percent increase over its earnings during the three-day period a week earlier.

"People were saying that it was going to fade out, but it hasn't," says Paul Dergarabedian, head of Exhibitor Relations, a box-office tracking company. "People were discounting it in the beginning, but it's really playing well. It's a nice, family-oriented film, it's perfect for everybody in the family. It's become sort of the go-to movie of the holiday season."

The $100 million-plus film is the only movie to have increased its box-office take over those two weekends without also increasing the number of theaters in which it was playing. Since its Nov. 14 opening, The Polar Express, which uses computer-generated sets and "performance-capture" technology that transfers the movements of real actors (including Hanks) onto their animated counterparts, has pulled in $84.2 million.

Box-office triumph

Officials at Warner Bros., which is distributing the film, may have been nervous when Polar's numbers dropped nearly 31 percent in its second week of release. But by the end of the third week, they were trumpeting the film's shift from potential failure to potential box-office champion.

"We are thrilled with the way this film is playing," Dan Fellman, the studio's president for domestic distribution, said in a statement. "We have believed in The Polar Express from the very beginning, and always expected that audiences would want more than ever to share the special meaning of this beautifully told story as the holiday season gets under way."

Warner executives no doubt also are happy that the movie didn't follow patterns set by earlier attempts to fuse computer technology with moviemaking. In 2001, creators of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within used computers to animate its human characters in ways that were supposed to make it nearly impossible to tell fiction from reality. (The film's animated heroine, Aki Ross, even appeared in a bikini in Maxim magazine.) That film, which cost $150 million to make, earned only $102 million worldwide ($32 million in the United States), and the company that produced it went out of business.

A year later, Simone featured a paragon of sensual beauty, who was said to be entirely computer-generated. She wasn't -- Canadian model Rachel Roberts played the character. But audiences didn't seem to care: The movie earned a paltry $9.7 million in the United States.

"I hate to see technology being marketed as the star of a movie," says Cliff Plumer, chief technology officer for George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, a leader in special effects technology. "The technology is there to support what the director is trying to say. ... You always want that stuff to be transparent, you don't want that to get in the way of being entertained. There may be this great story of how the movie was made, but that's not what you're seeing in the theater."

'Story still important'

Last summer, Sky Captain was trumpeted as a trendsetter. Directed by newcomer Kerry Conran, the film used real actors (Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie), but no sets. Anything not human was computer-generated. A throwback to World War II-era adventure stories, the film was received warmly by critics, but under-performed at the box office, bringing in $37.5 million domestically -- barely enough to cover its reported $40 million budget.

"I'd be a candidate for political office, meaning a baldfaced liar, if I said I wasn't disappointed it didn't do more business," says Jon Avnet, the film's producer. "The people that went to see the movie seemed to like it, and the reviewers seemed to like it. Obviously, we weren't getting enough people into the theaters, and the word-of-mouth didn't develop fast enough. I think the retro nature of it may have not hit a chord with the young audience; the audience was older than I had hoped.

"Sometimes, you're ahead of your time," Avnet laments, "sometimes you're not. History will have to judge."

The growing success of The Polar Express suggests, however, that audiences may be ready to embrace films that rely on computers for more than special effects. Certainly, the use of computers didn't prevent the masses from flocking to Titanic, The Matrix or the three Lord of the Rings movies. But in the end, it was the stories, not the gimmicks, that made those movies successful.

"Story is still important to audiences," says Time magazine movie critic Richard Schickel, noting the success of Pixar studio's animated films, all of which have been made using computers. "Every one of their films has had a strong narrative, and they've all been successful."

There's certainly nothing wrong with the story told in The Polar Express, which is a faithful adaptation of Van Allsburg's book. In it, a child who's beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus is taken by a magical train on a Christmas Eve visit to the North Pole.

"Regardless of how some people might react to the limits of the new technology, there's still a terrific story in there," says Van Allsburg, who believes Christmas and trains are a can't-miss combination. As a bonus, he adds, the new technology, while it does have limitations (the character's faces, especially the eyes, tend to appear blank), augmented the fantasy elements of his story.

"There are some things in there that are kind of magical," the author says. "The limited expressive range of the characters was incidental to the great benefits of being able to create this other reality."

Ultimately, the best days for The Polar Express may still lie ahead.

"That movie's going to do just fine," predicts Schickel, who didn't think much of the film, but admitted in his review that the thrill of seeing it on an IMAX screen, projected in 3-D, is an experience not to be missed.

"Here's what's going to happen: The Christmas holidays are going to come, and it's going to be snowing and raining, and Mom and Dad are going to say, 'All right, let's go to The Polar Express.'"

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