Knight at the Movies ARCHIVES
Let's Hear It For the Kids and an Irish Indie:
The Polar Express-The Incredibles-Animal Farm DVD, Cowboys & Angels
11-10-04 Knight at the Movies column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
Like Cher, The Polar Express wants you to Believe. Not just in love after love, but in the J.C. Superstar of
Fantasyland, Santa Claus. “I want to,” the nameless Hero Boy says at one point in The Polar Express, to which
another character replies, “But you don’t want to be bamboozled.” Onscreen Hero Boy nods his head and so did I.
That’s how I tried NOT to feel much of the time about this big-budget kids’ holiday movie. Though the movie is shot
in the newly developed and justly touted Performance Capture technique, a seamless blend of human and computer
(except for trouble with the mouths and teeth of the characters), and draws on the haunting, authentic Chris Van
Allsburg’s children’s book for its look and feel, the filmmakers can’t seem to resist covering the usual, movie cliché
The book arrived in 1985 and was an instant best seller – and not just for kids (I still treasure mine). The simple
story is that of a nameless boy who’s on the fence about his belief in Santa Claus. Just before Midnight on
Christmas Eve a train filled with kids and bound for the North Pole shows up outside his door. He hops aboard and
heads up north where, naturally, he meets Santa and the elves and has his innocent faith restored.
The book’s 32 pages weren’t enough to make a full length feature so director and co-screenwriter Robert Zemeckis
has added lots of typical Hollywood formula stuff to pad it out. There are numerous, hyped up unnecessary Young
Indiana Jones cliffhangers, an obnoxious kid for comedic effect, and both a cloying but okay pop/holiday tune filled
with lots of preachy uplift and an execrable, up-tempo holiday rock tune performed by an elfin version of
Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. There is also a movie score by Alan Silvestri that’s a bad pastiche of John Williams and
Good additions to the story begin to happen as the train arrives in Elf central and Hero Boy and his two compatriots
are lost in the toy-making factory amidst a bunch of New Yawk-Joe Pesci-type Elves. The Diva-like arrival of
Santa in the town square with the elves anticipating his appearance by singing an eerie, a capella verse of “Santa
Claus Is Comin’ To Town” is very canny – an entrance worthy of Cher-Bette-Madonna-Elvis. There is also an
amazing, early sequence on the train where a golden ticket flies out the window and, carried on the wind, floats
through the icy forests that is magical. It’s these moments of magic and whimsy that had me finally believing in
the film. Zemeckis and company also had the good sense to retain the book’s sweet ending – a charming variation
on the “if you believe in fairies clap your hand” idea of “Peter Pan.”
Tom Hanks, voicing six roles (and seen as the train’s conductor), doesn’t have the voice pyrotechnics of Hank
Azaria or Harry Shearer from “The Simpsons” and the film’s stock characterizations might have been greatly
improved with the addition of other voice talents. One of those who does make a brief, funny impression, is the
late, gay actor Michael Jeter, in his last role as the train’s engineers, Smokey and Steamer.
The Pixar-Disney digital animation follow-up to its gigantic success Finding Nemo, is the retro super hero send-up,
The Incredibles. Unlike The Polar Express, it has an embarrassment of actors who voice the eccentric
characters with obvious relish. Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter play Bob and Helen Parr, formerly known as Mr.
Incredible and Elastigirl in years past when super heroes were all the rage. Now, after falling out of favor with the
public and plagued with lawsuits, they’ve married and had two kids, who also have hidden super powers. Before
long, of course, they’re all called into action as it’s time to save the world once again.
Apparently, a lot of people really, really are still nostalgic for the James Bond-Our Man Flint-Matt Helm spy
pictures from the 1960s because The Incredibles is yet another parody of them in the Austin Powers mode, right
down to the mystery island, the Dr. No type villain and the beautiful but treacherous vixen with an accent. I don’t
know how the pint-sized kids are going to respond to this witty, visually hilarious retro masterpiece but this adult
sized kid was dazzled by everything in it. Besides, where else are you going to find a movie so true in its homage
to its sources that it includes a character based on Hollywood’s costume designer emeritus Edith Head?
For fans of old-fashioned cell animation, 1954’s Animal Farm has just been released on DVD. This is the
slightly reworked version of the sad, mean spirited fable from George Orwell that used to be required reading for
all eighth grade students. The scratchy, quaint animation with the purposefully dark colors has been left intact and
the feature comes accompanied by a nice documentary that reminds us that the movie was secretly financed by the
CIA as a subtle anti-Communist tool during the Cold War. If only animated propaganda were all that they were up
to these days! From Home Vision Entertainment.
If you missed the coming-of-age Cowboys & Angels at the recent Gay & Lesbian Film Fest, it’s opening this
Friday. It’s the story of timid, inexperienced Shane (Michael Legge, a freckled-faced twin to Elijah Wood), a Civil
Servant in Ireland who secretly wants to be an artist. He moves into a flat with the flamboyant, openly gay fashion
student Vincent (Allen Leech) and envies him both his determined pursuit of his dreams and his beautiful best
friend, Gemma (Amy Shiels).
This is basically a drawn out, fictionalized Irish, comedic episode of “Queer Eye” with lots of dramatic subplots
thrown in (Shane gets involved with drug dealers, Gemma may or may not be lesbian). It made perfect sense to
me that all the straight characters were confused, depressed or evil while the gay, level-headed Vincent kept hard
at work on his fashions (obviously inspired by Adam Ant and the 1980s) and offered telling advice on everything
from how to pick up girls to what kind of lip gloss to wear.
All aboard the animation express and a gay indie