11/15/05 Edition

Four For The Holidays

Warner's POLAR EXPRESS and CHARLIE debut on disc
plus: BUENA VISTA round up, MILLIONS, and a KRANKy Christmas!

Christmas may be well over a month away but -- as you’ve undoubtedly noticed -- holiday decor is quickly set up in stores seemingly as soon as the clock strikes Midnight on November 1st. Likewise, the extensive barrage of holiday DVDs begins in earnest several weeks ahead of time, and this week The Aisle Seat presents its first of several wrap-ups of yuletide fare, spotlighting four varied tales suitable for the season.

On November 22nd, Warner releases the elaborate, candy-coated Robert Zemeckis adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s book THE POLAR EXPRESS.

Centering on the recollections of a young boy just old enough to have his doubts about the existence of Santa Claus, “The Polar Express” offers Tom Hanks playing no less than five different “roles”: the boy, his father, the conductor of a magical train that transports our young hero to the North Pole, a ghostly hobo who rides on top of it, and Santa himself. While at the North Pole, our nameless protagonist (dubbed “Hero Boy”) -- along with the other children onboard the Polar Express -- learn something about the true meaning of Christmas and the ability to believe.

Meticulously designed with the most capable CGI available today, “The Polar Express” is a strange film: a warm-hearted holiday fantasy with creepy, half-human/half-animated performances set against a fully animated cinematic world, and a story that would have been more effective as a half-hour TV special as opposed to a 100-minute theatrical feature.

The latter is unsurprising, since Van Allsburg’s beloved children’s book is only a few dozen pages, and screenwriters Zemeckis and William Broyles, Jr. had to artificially lengthen the material for the big screen. Still, what’s disappointing is the manner in which the filmmakers expand the story: after a strong start, the journey to the North Pole feels endless, with saccharine Alan Silvestri-Glen Ballard songs, an out-of-place Steven Tyler performance near the end, uninteresting side characters, and a succession of “action” sequences that do, admittedly, show off the film’s amazing visuals.

Speaking of the latter, though, I kept on wondering what “The Polar Express” might have been like had Zemeckis simply shot the film with real human beings instead of the “performance capture” figures he ultimately utilized. Similar to how video games attempt to convey actual human movement, Zemeckis had Hanks and other performers act out the characters in front of a green screen. Later, a collection of CGI artists digitally animated them, working from the actors’ references but adding some of their own ideas into the final product.

The result is an odd viewing experience: there are times, yes, when you truly believe it’s Tom Hanks acting out a part, but others when the actions of the juvenile protagonist feel off-balance. While Hanks’ conductor and hobo characters work well enough, the “Hero Boy” movements and expressions are often awkward and take too long to register, and as a result, you become aware that what you’re watching isn’t “real.” Even as a sucker for holiday movies, the uncomfortable melding of genuine human performance and digital CGI made me detached from the film and its message: I seldom felt emotionally engaged in what was happening, and the ending in particular left me cold.

Ultimately, despite all the good intentions and the evocative visual design of the film (its characters notwithstanding), “The Polar Express” isn’t the perennial classic one might have hoped. I kept on thinking that the movie would have worked better either as a live-action fantasy (or at least with live, real actors set against the CGI backdrops), or a fully animated work, where animators could have used their own imaginations instead of having to adhere (at least partially) to the human “captured” performances. Instead, the picture exists somewhere in the netherworld between the two -- a fusion that may, in fact, date the picture badly for future generations.

Warner’s double-disc Special Edition DVD, available in time for Thanksgiving, does boast a gorgeous 2.35 widescreen transfer that’s every bit as colorful and clean as one might anticipate from an expensive digital project like this. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is a bit more restrained than you might anticipate, displaying Silvestri’s overly sentimental score and likewise saccharine songs, including a forgettable Josh Groban ballad performed over the end credits.

Special features on the second disc are interesting but geared towards kids, including numerous featurettes that skim the surface of the film’s production: “The Many Polar Faces of Tom Hanks” offers a cute, quick look at Hanks’ involvement in the film; “True Inspirations: An Author’s Adventure” spotlights Chris Van Allsburg; “A Genuine Ticket To Ride” includes a basic overview of the picture’s fascinating effects work; “”Behind The Scenes of ‘Believe’” examines the production of Josh Groban’s ballad, with a live performance of the song from the Greek Theatre also-on hand; “Meet the Snow Angels” is comprised of short memories from the creative team of their holiday celebrations; plus there are the usual games, including a pair of playable levels from the THQ video game, also available. (**½, 100 mins., 2005, G, Warner).

More magic is on-hand in Tim Burton’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (***½, 115 mins., 2005, PG; Warner), a wonderful new adaptation of the Roald Dahl book. Despite some unappealing preliminary trailers, Burton’s take on the material is funny, inventive, colorful, fascinating visually, and filled with eccentric and equally delightful performances.

Johnny Depp once again shows why there is no better actor of his age -- of the range of performances he’s tackled over the years, his crazed chocolate entrepreneur is another bold new creation and a far cry from Gene Wilder’s frazzled Wonka. With a heartbreaking relationship with his estranged father (Christopher Lee) to blame for his isolated existence, this Wonka comes across as a little boy tutored in growing up by the valiant Charlie (the terrific Freddie Highmore, who worked with Depp in last year’s superb “Finding Neverland”).

The John August script adheres more closely to Dahl than the ‘70s perennial, but the charm is in Burton’s imaginative visual trappings. From Alex McDowell’s sets to Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography, this is a captivating aesthetic experience, and Burton’s twists on the material -- particularly having Deep Roy portray all the Oompa-Loompas -- are fresh enough that one can forget all about Anthony Newley’s songs and the comparatively plastic design of the original “Willy Wonka,” while still embracing the same core story.

Just as impressive is the music: Danny Elfman's score is one of his most inspired and effective works in years. His songs -- written to lyrics culled directly from Dahl’s text -- encompass a wide variety of genres, while his use of electronics is wickedly entertaining, no more so than in the striking opening credits.

Needless to say, all of it goes down sweeter than one of Wonka's candies, and the cherry on top is the heartfelt narration performed by Geoffrey Holder. Highly, highly recommended!

Warner’s two-disc DVD offers up a sensational 1.85 widescreen transfer of the movie with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras include the trailer on disc one, and a second disc’s worth of supplements, including a multi-part documentary on the creation of the film. Segments involving Danny Elfman and Deep Roy are on-hand, while additional featurettes include a superb, 17-minute BBC profile of the late Roald Dahl; a look at the training of wild squirrels for one of the picture’s more memorable sequences; a few interactive games and more. The supplements aren’t exhaustive but are a good deal more interesting than those on “The Polar Express,” as is the movie itself.

Filmmaker Chris Columbus is no stranger to cinematic portrayals of Christmas, having penned “Home Alone” and been involved in the production of numerous films that have opened around or centered on the holidays (“Gremlins,” the first two “Harry Potter” films, etc.).

Though Columbus struck gold with those offerings, his streak ran out as the writer and producer of last year’s CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS (** , 99 mins., PG; Sony), a desperate attempt at creating a manic holiday comedy a la the far, far superior “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”

This adaptation of John Grisham’s “Skipping Christmas” (the movie was re-titled to avoid confusion with the Ben Affleck bomb “Surviving Christmas”) stars Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis as an everyday married couple whose daughter opts to not return home for the holidays. Faced with celebrating the season without their little girl, Allen and Curtis decide to not engage in holiday mirth and merriment at all -- a decision that doesn’t sit well with their “only in the movies” neighborhood, including Dan Aykroyd as a particularly obnoxious boob and M. Emmet Walsh as the crotchety old guy who lives across the street. Once Allen and Curtis’ daughter DOES decide to come home for Christmas, would-be shenanigans ensue as the town rallies behind the Kranks and helps them embrace the jollies as quickly as possible.

Relentlessly well-intentioned, “Christmas With The Kranks” is the kind of suburban fare made by people who don’t have the slightest clue about suburbia or the true meaning of Christmas itself (the Christmas portrayed in this film is a typical Hollywood consumerist view -- never once does the film bat an eye at the religious or even spiritual implications of what the day means). The portrayal of the Kranks and their neighbors is so incredibly single-minded that it feels like the whole project was conceived like an average CBS sitcom: laughs are nowhere to be found, the narrative situations forced, and there’s no edge to any aspect of the film at all. Perhaps in wanting to create a “PG” safe family comedy, director Joe Roth (working from Columbus’ script) opted to take away any sort of satiric component to the picture (the kind that gave John Hughes’ perennial “Christmas Vacation” an enduring vitality), resulting in a tedious, tired affair that’s almost shocking in how vanilla every component of the film turns out to be.

Sony’s DVD edition offers both 2.40 widescreen and 1.33 full-screen transfers. Cinematographer Don Burgess and Roth shot the film in legitimate widescreen, meaning the 1.33 full-screen transfer is cropped and unwatchable. John Debney’s pleasant score tries to add some warmth to the preceding (the 5.1 track is satisfying), but the movie isn’t nearly worthy enough of a place on your annual holiday viewing list (incredibly, the film still managed to gross $73 million domestically, proving the holiday theme generally results in sales, regardless of how vapid a film actually is). No extras are included on the disc.

Lastly among the new holiday offerings is MILLIONS (***, 98 mins., PG; Fox), British filmmaker Danny Boyle’s offbeat, winning import that won acclaim (but much in the way of domestic box-office) last year.

Alex Etel plays Damian, a precocious seven-year-old with a single dad (James Nesbitt) and a not entirely understanding older brother (Lewis McGibbon), who move into a new neighborhood after the death of their mother. Damian not only has conversations with some of the more unusual saints of recorded history but also -- while playing one day outside his home -- comes across a heap of cash thrown off a passing train.

Damian informs his brother of the miraculous discovery, and the two begin to spend the cash in any way imaginable -- Damian erring on the side of helping others, his brother using it to essentially buy popularity with his new schoolmates. The problems with their endless supply of money are two-fold: first, the British government is about to convert their currency to the Euro, making the money only valid for a few more days before Christmas; and more importantly, a mysterious man concerned with the loot’s whereabouts shows up, threatening Damian and wanting it back.

Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script alternates between fanciful passages of childhood exuberance and a strong message about the nature of money and human failings associated with it. Damian constantly wants to do the right thing but is often let down by those around him, even the people he loves most. Boyle’s direction, meanwhile, gives the material the perfect edge, refraining from the saccharine melodrama of most children’s fare and augmenting the serious, dramatic twists and turns of the story with the same style he brought to “Trainspotting” and “28 Days Later.”

The result is an uplifting but quirky tale with a holiday theme, recommended for adults and older children (parents ought to be aware that the PG-rated film does have a few intense confrontations between Damian and the stranger that may make it unsuitable for young kids)

Fox’s DVD presentation offers an interesting commentary with Boyle and Boyce, several deleted scenes and the requisite behind-the-scenes featurettes. The 1.85 transfer is exceptional and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound impressively layered with an infectious John Murphy score and a litany of upbeat rock tracks (save for the heavy-handed use of Vangelis’ “La Petite Fille de la Mer” in one sequence).

New Holiday Offerings From Buena Vista

Disney Channel Holiday (113 mins., G): Holiday-themed episodes from five Disney Channel series: “That’s So Raven,” “Lizzie McGuire,” “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody,” “Even Stevens,” and the animated “Kim Possible.” There’s also a bonus, never-before-seen episode from “Phil of the Future” and a fan_3 music video. Transfers are in full-screen and all episodes offer 2.0 Dolby Digital surround.

Disney Princess: A Christmas of Enchantment (63 mins., G): This latest “Disney Princess” DVD once again offers an oddly assembled mix of older Disney animated shorts (or fragments from Disney Channel TV series) with newly assembled computer-rendered introductions linking the sections together. Still, undemanding young girls likely won’t know the difference, and the DVD comes complete with a “Virtual Snowglobe Maker, DVD-ROM screensaver, and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

A Very Playhouse Disney Holiday (56 mins., G): Three episodes from the popular daytime Disney Channel series “Jojo’s Circus,” “Shanna’s Show,” and “Higglytown Heroes,” plus an interactive game ideal for the wee ones this DVD is aimed at.

The 3 Wise Men [Los Reyes Magos] (76 mins., G): Strange, Spanish-produced animated feature attempts to place the story of Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar in a context (complete with a modern framing story) that will appeal to contemporary youth. Thus, we have action sequences mixed into the usual biblical tale of the Three Wise Men. The result is odd but may appeal to some children regardless, with Disney’s DVD offering a pleasant 1.78 widescreen transfer (16:9 enhanced) with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Both an English language track (including the likes of Martin Sheen and son Emilio Estevez) and the original Spanish dialogue are on-hand, though no Spanish subtitles are available for those who’d prefer to watch the original Spanish theatrical release. Note: this DVD is, for the time being, only available at Walmart locations around the nation.

Disney Box Sets: TV and More

Five Mile Creek: Complete First Season (1983-84, 620 mins.): Very popular Australian series (which aired in the early days of the Disney Channel) followed the adventures of young settlers in the Australian Gold Rush era of the 1860s, and in its later days, counted Nicole Kidman as one of its early stars. Disney’s box set includes the initial 13 episodes of “Five Mile Creek” in decent full-screen transfers and mono sound. Extras aren’t on-hand but because so many die-hard fans have restlessly scoured Ebay over the years for episodes, most will be happy this four-disc DVD box set is available to begin with. Recommended!

Tales From Avonlea: Complete Season One (1989-90, 590 mins.): Sarah Polley starred in this long-running co-production between The Disney Channel and Canadian TV, an off-shoot of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” books. Produced by the same folks behind the acclaimed “Anne” TV adaptations, this three-disc set includes all 13 first-season episodes of “Tales From Avonlea” in satisfying full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby stereo sound. Viewers should note that the transfers are markedly superior to the DVD versions of “Anne of Green Gables” that producer Kevin Sullivan independently produced several years ago.

The Golden Girls: Complete Third Season (1987-88, 614 mins.)
Home Improvement: Complete Third Season (1993-94, 611 mins.): The long-running “Golden Girls” and “Home Improvement” series both return for their third go-around on DVD. Season three of “The Golden Girls” (an NBC staple on Saturday nights) offers 25 episodes that really brought the show into its prime. Buena Vista’s three-disc DVD box offers a pair of extras this time as well: “Golden Moments” includes the girls reminiscing about their favorite moments (an original episode exclusive to this set), while more of the same can be found in “The Golden Girls’ Scrapbook.” Pamela Anderson, meanwhile, may have no longer been on the set for the third season of “Home Improvement,” yet Tim Allen’s show remained near the top of the ratings in ‘93, with Buena Vista’s set featuring the series’ 25 third-season episodes with an extra feature hosted by Pam’s “Tool Time” fill-in Debbe Duning. Transfers of the unexpurgated, broadcast length shows are all just fine, as are the Dolby Digital surround soundtracks.

Scrubs: Complete Second Season (2002-03, 479 mins.): J.D. and the gang are back in this second go-round for the acclaimed, well-received, but not always well-treated series “Scrubs.” Despite a superb ensemble cast, consistently fine writing that bridges the gap between comedy and drama, and widespread critical acclaim, NBC continues to handle the show like a misbegotten relative. It’s unfortunate as well, because “Scrubs” is great fun and always entertaining, and now on DVD can land viewers who might have missed it the first time around. Buena Vista’s three-disc set includes the 22 second season episodes in full-screen transfers and Dolby Digital sound, and adds a few supplements into the fray for good measure: an interview with the brilliant John C. McGinley, a featurette named “Music Stylings” that looks at the creation of the series’ soundtracks (the episodes are once again uncut with original songs intact), deleted scenes and outtakes, and other goodies fans should enjoy.

Disney’s Ducktales, Volume 1 (1987, 618 mins.)
Disney’s Chip ‘N’ Dale: Rescue Rangers, Volume 1 (1989, 614 mins.): Disney entered the realm of syndicated animation with these two entertaining, late ‘80s series. “Ducktales” chronicles the exploits of Scrooge McDuck, who recruits nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie to join him on a series of adventures throughout the globe and criss-crossing time itself. The later “Rescue Rangers” (often paired with “Ducktales” in weekday afternoon broadcast blocks) sports Chip ‘N Dale as a hard-working pair of heroes in (mostly) more Earthbound adventures. Both three-disc sets include 27 episodes each from the successful series, which kids have continued to enjoy on Disney Channel airings over the years.

Old Yeller: 2-Movie Collection: Affordably priced, two-disc set couples the 1957 Disney classic “Old Yeller” with its lesser-known 1963 follow-up “Savage Sam,” each starring Tommy Kirk. Transfers and sound are identical to each respective film’s previous DVD edition, meaning a good-looking 16:9 transfer for “Old Yeller” and a plain, full-screen presentation for “Savage Sam.” Various featurettes from “Vault Disney” are included on the disc’s second platter, basically reprising the contents of the previous “Old Yeller” deluxe two-disc DVD. Recommended heartily for family viewing, the depressing finale of “Old Yeller” aside!

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (385 mins.): Popular Sunday night ABC series hits DVD in this satisfying double-disc set. Those who enjoy the series will find plenty of material to savor here, including some 380+ minutes of content, spotlighting the highlights of the show’s first season. Bonus features take you behind the scenes to see how the show is produced, while bloopers, outtakes and other goodies are also on-hand for those who may just shed an extra tear or two (not me personally, though I know of others who do weep weekly at the show!).

Also New on DVD

STEALTH (*½, 2005). 121 mins., PG-13, Sony. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of documentary; Scene deconstruction; Music Featurette; Two Multi-Angle Scene Breakdowns; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

Director Rob Cohen has filmed some entertaining pictures over the years, but his flop from last summer -- “Stealth” -- ranks as a turkey as large as one might be consuming with family and friends next week.

Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel (so far the kiss of box-office failure) and Jamie Foxx (cashing in his Oscar check with a “Dead Man Walking” supporting turn) play elite Navy pilots recruited by boss Sam Shepard to fly the newest rig: a super-charged stealth fighter that has a mind of its own...so much so that, once it shorts out, we’re talking the development of HAL-like symptoms, with “Blue Thunder”-like power to match.

Writer W.D. Richter’s credits include cult classics like “Buckaroo Banzai” and the James Caan gem “Slither” (any DVD upcoming of that one?), but his silly script for “Stealth” is matched only by director Cohen’s distracting editing. Looks like the director has been spending too much time in the Michael Bay Academy of ADD Cutting, since no more than a handful of seconds go by at any one time in “Stealth” before a cut happens...followed by another...then another...then another.

The images alone aren’t particularly appealing, and they give the drama all the depth of a coming attractions trailer. As it turns out, 121 minutes of “Stealth” is 119 too many, with the movie’s “Rambo”-like plot twist near the end (Biel gets trapped behind enemy lines) nearly as absurd as the film’s early “bonding” scenes of Biel in a bikini, chucking the finger at pals Lucas (who comes across as a second-string Matthew McConaughey) and Foxx (perhaps the wisest man associated with the project -- he’s outta there before the first hour is up...and if you didn’t know that already, perhaps his third billing behind Biel was a good indicator!).

Sony’s two-disc DVD set rolls out the red carpet treatment at least: the 2.35 transfer is exceptional and the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound of “reference quality,” provided you can take the throbbing bass and non-stop, over-the-top score from BT.

Perhaps more entertaining for viewers will be the disc’s assortment of documentary materials on the second disc. Cohen is one of the more articulate filmmakers when it comes to laserdisc/DVD supplements and here provides numerous insights into the process of making “Stealth.” The film may have been a bomb but Cohen sincerely believes in what he’s doing, even if you have to giggle at his hiring of the band Incubus mainly for their “political awareness.”

In addition to several multi-angle features and a solid basic documentary on the picture’s Australian production, there’s a rather lengthy examination of the movie’s soundtrack. The near half-hour featurette includes comments from Cohen and BT, talking about the score’s fusion of “Korngold, Zimmer and electronics,” as well as Cohen’s utilization of Incubus and David Bowie on the soundtrack.

A Thanksgiving Feast with LOVE AT STAKE, The HAROLD LLOYD COMEDY COLLECTION, and More! Don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers!

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