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April 2004
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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by Kathi Maio

Plastic, and Proud of It!

AT THE END of the year, all those serious, self-satisfied movies designed to win "Best Picture" Oscars always come out. However, all is not lost. Because—since the tykes of America need to be kept out from underfoot while last-minute holiday preparations are made—it is also a time when many of the more light-hearted, kid-friendly, entertainment-only pictures are released. These family films are often heavily infused with fantasy and sf elements, but usually have much less hyper-violence and general coarseness attached to their story-telling than most "grown-up" fantasy films.

Okay, some of them (SpongeBob, anyone?) seem obsessed with getting cheap laughs from body emissions and slapstick, but at least their stories aren't completely dependent on human grotesquery, non-stop explosions, high-tech weaponry, or legions of CGI warriors slaughtering one another.

Which is not to say that CGI has been overlooked. In fact, two of the family films of late 2004 were computer animation start to finish. Neither opted for chatty critters, dynamic toys, or lovable monsters—the types of imaginary life forms that have, from Toy Story 1 (1995) to Shrek 2 (2004), made believers of even the most skeptical computer animation viewers. Both The Polar Express and The Incredibles tried, in fact, to take computer "humanimation" to the next level. But although both nobly pushed the envelope of realism in the portrayal of human characters through computerized animation, only one truly succeeds as motion picture entertainment.

The Polar Express is, perhaps, the more ambitious film. Based on the greatly loved children's story by author and artist Chris Van Allsburg, the movie adaptation was co-written and directed by a man who knows a thing or two about melding fantasy to realism in film. Robert Zemeckis, who directed the likes of the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump, and Contact, would seem to have been born for the challenge. Zemeckis has a talent for both technological innovation and heartfelt storytelling, so if anyone could have transformed Van Allsburg's story about a young boy's magical trip to see Santa at the North Pole, it should have been Zemeckis.

But the technology was not quite up to the challenge of Mr. Zemeckis's vision.

It has been reported that Mr. Van Allsburg vetoed a traditional cartoon adaptation when he sold the movie rights to his story. And the logistics of a live-action story using real trains and live child actors (who would grow too quickly for the long production needed) also seemed impracticable. So, Zemeckis and his built-in star and executive producer, Tom Hanks, instead convinced the book's author that the best plan would be to use "performance capture" to transform human actors into computer animation.

The technique had been used successfully by other filmmakers to bring the non-human (e.g., Jar Jar Binks of Star Wars fame) and the semi-human (LOTR's Gollum) into live-action films of note. But this is the first time a cast of completely human characters was created in computers to populate a computer-generated landscape.

In these days of an exhausting array of "The Making of…" puff documentaries and relentless gee-whiz promotions, there are probably only a handful of people who don't know something about how Mr. Zemeckis and his cohorts photographed live actors wearing countless reflective do-dads, to "capture" their expressions and movements and then convert them into CGI. But despite the hype, techniques don't matter unless you're a film student. Movie magic isn't about the how-tos. What matters is whether filmmakers can make their audiences really believe in their films.

And, ironically, in a movie with a message that can literally be summed up in the word "believe," it was impossible for me to ever give myself over to the story of The Polar Express, or let myself be enchanted by its gentle Christmas fantasy.

I could set aside the ego-tripping of star Tom Hanks, who plays not one but four roles—the boy hero, a ghost hobo, the train conductor, and even old St. Nick himself—in the movie. (Hey Tom, leave a little work for the other members of SAG, will ya?) And I was also more than willing to make certain allowances for the way the storyline was complicated and inflated so as to fill a feature film. For me, the key problem with The Polar Express was simply its unsettling and eerie computer-generated look.

The people, most especially the children, who wander through this cybernetic wonderland are like something from Night of the Living Dead. Their skin tones are dull and cold, their teeth are gray, and their eyes seem perpetually crossed, like they've had too much eggnog and then some. Their affect is curiously flat, even in the most adventurous or frightening scene, and they never truly seem to connect with each other emotionally.

The plotting of the film doesn't ameliorate this tendency, either. The nameless children who join our nameless young hero on his trip are all stock stereotypes, from the smart brat to the feisty black girl. Most disturbing of all is the way a tacked-onto-the-plot poor boy is portrayed as an isolated minority (as if the majority of the kids on this Earth weren't poor and Christmas-less), who sees himself as a shame-filled pariah. As the story goes, one child is picked by Santa as deserving the first gift of Christmas. Wouldn't a saintly benefactor seek out just such an impoverished child for special care and attention? Not in this movie. Santa picks a middle-class child who already has a wealth of presents under his tree at home. And to add insult to his indigence, the poor boy is told that the greatest gift he can hope for is friendship. (Tell that to the rich kid, Santa!)

Besides being a little lacking in the true spirit of holiday, the film's Kris Kringle appears neither round nor jolly nor warm. And even his prancing reindeer seem devoid of personality!

At times, while you watch the movie, you can marvel at the technical brilliance of a shot. But as much as I was wowed by tricks like a virtual tracking shot that moved through a frosty window into a room interior or scenes in which first wolves and then caribou gather at the train's tracks, I was never able to stop looking at the movie as an exercise in computer wizardry.

Released just days before The Polar Express, The Incredibles is a much different kettle of bits and bytes. It, too, focuses exclusively on human characters—a first for Pixar, the studio that has dominated the computer animation field for a decade by telling tales about objects and animals. But writer-director Brad Bird (who released the brilliant but underappreciated Iron Giant in 1999) somehow knew the limits of his medium despite the fact that he came from a traditional drawn animation background. So his characters weren't designed to look like real humans. Instead, they were designed to look like real cartoon characters.

The central protagonist is Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), a superhero of the most dedicated variety, who uses his brawn, speed, and other ultra-talents to serve humanity. That is, until litigious savees start suing him for his altruistic acts. Eventually, Mr. I and his bride, the former Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), are sent to live undercover in a ranch home in a bland sixties-style suburbia.

Our hero is now known as Bob Parr, and he toils each day as an insurance adjuster. Still, he can't help himself from saving people. He tells clients whose claims are denied how to win benefits from his heartless company. And on boys' night out, he listens to a police scanner with his old superhero pal, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), and saves people on the sly.

Elastigirl, now Helen Parr, has done a better job of suppressing her real super-self. She tries to avoid using her powers, and chastises her two older children, shy pubescent Violet (Sarah Vowell) and mischievous Dash (Spencer Fox) to do the same.

Our Fantastic-Four-like nuclear family lives an approximation of a normal life until Bob loses his job and is drawn into secret work to save the world once more. Or so he thinks. Actually, he is being targeted for destruction by his former "biggest fan," Buddy (Jason Lee), a seriously disturbed geek inventor who now calls himself Syndrome.

The Incredibles is a full-fledged adventure story—and works marvelously as such. But it is also a character-driven tale of considerable warmth and intelligence. I liked the way each Parr's power reflected recognizable gender and age roles, without seeming like stereotypes. Bird purposefully heightened the father figure as one of strength, while Helen's mother figure is someone who is stretched in a dozen different directions but somehow manages to juggle it all. Violet, living through that adolescent time when young girls seem to lose themselves, has a talent for becoming invisible and creating a self-protecting force field around herself. Dash is an ADHD-ish energetic little boy, with the ability to move so quickly that his teacher can't even see him put the tack on his chair.

Minor support characters are equally noteworthy. Especially fun is a cameo character who is clearly an homage to costuming great Edith Head. But instead of a clothier to Hollywood, Edna Mode is the stylist for superheroes. The diminutive designer produces outfits for the entire Parr clan. And her lecture on the dangers of capes is a delight. Even more so when you realize that the character is being voiced by Mr. Bird himself!

The characters in The Incredibles are certainly memorable ones. Well-rounded in both outer self and inner being? Yes. Believable? You bet. But do they look like real humans? Not a chance. The sheen and movement of the hair of Violet is phenomenal. The suppleness of Mr. Incredible's muscles beneath his tights is very impressive. Certainly all the characters in The Incredibles are more realistic and multi-dimensional than traditional cartoon characters, but they don't look like actual human beings. Instead, they look like plastic action figures come to life.

It seems an apt compromise between 2-D cell animation and the kind of realism that The Polar Express strives to capture, but isn't even close to pulling off.

The Incredibles is a very sophisticated movie. A rip-roaring superhero thriller, it is also a celebration of family that doubles as a not-that-subtle denunciation of a society that tells excellence to stifle itself and seems intent on enforcing mediocrity.

Luckily, there is nothing mediocre about this film. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the ghostly, ghastly Polar Express. Someone should tell Mr. Zemeckis not to try so hard to make his CGI look like living, breathing humans. It's okay for a cartoon to look like a cartoon—even when the hero is a man and not a clown fish. Artifice is fine as long as it's superficial. Brad Bird certainly understands this. His Incredibles clan is visually "fake," but real (and completely entertaining) in all the ways that really matter.

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