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Movies reviewed this week: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Finding Neverland, and The Polar Express

Pre-Thanksgiving nibbles: The Polar Express is neither an "instant classic" nor the polar opposite, but a middling addition to the holiday repertoire: computerized illustrations of the Chris Van Allsburg children's book about a little boy already too old to believe in Santa ("This is your crucial year"), snatched out of his bed on Christmas Eve for a faith-restoring train trip to the North Pole. Is seeing believing? -- or vice versa? (The answer to the explicit question, "Could this be nothing but a dream?," is a firm "No!") The fundamental animation technique of drawing on top of live-action figures -- as in Ralph Bakshi's version of The Lord of the Rings, for example -- is nothing new, but it has never looked quite like this: a mobile billboard or magazine ad airbrushed to the thickness of cake frosting, giving the image a velvety, mossy, furry, peach-fuzzy feel. Filmmaker Robert Zemeckis, who really did foment a revolution in animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, does not now appear likely to repeat the feat. But only time will tell. Maybe when computer-generated touch-ups have become as commonplace in Hollywood as cosmetic surgery, we'll look back on The Polar Express as the breakthrough. Personally, I would hope that by that time I'll be good and dead.

There are some marvelous sights on parade -- the ghostly first appearance of the choo-choo out of a clearing cloud of steam and swirling snow; the wind-borne ticket that returns to its holder via a relay network of a pack of wolves, an eagle, a rolling snowball, etc.; the perilous slog over the top of the railcars against a relentless salvo of blinding snowflakes; the train snaking across an ice-covered track; the red-brick Victorian architecture of the Pole -- but these, without exception, are significantly liberated from the live actors. They are free-hand animation. The recognizable face of Tom Hanks, behind a walrus mustache and half-moon glasses, in the part of the train conductor and chief proselytizer for childlike credulity, is something of a distraction -- a disruption in the cartoon universe -- in the same way that an overly recognizable voice can be a distraction (Robin Williams in Aladdin, Eddie Murphy in Shrek, Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo -- name your own). But Hanks's voice, in a handful of other roles besides that of the conductor, almost as though he alone were reading the Van Allsburg text for audiotape, has been sufficiently disguised or electronically altered to be no more than a minimal distraction. A rough indicator of how long this project has been in the works (I seem to recall seeing teasers for it before Christmas last) is the fact that a couple of other voices were supplied by the late Michael Jeter, who had already passed away when Open Range came out two summers ago.

Finding Neverland, directed by Marc (Monster's Ball) Forster, is a kind of academic exercise, adapted from an unrenowned theater piece entitled The Man Who Was Peter Pan, that purports to show how the playwright J.M. Barrie sculpted the glazed statue of Peter Pan from the soft clay of his real-life relationship with a widow and her four boys. (Albeit a platonic relationship, both with the widow and -- titillating though it may be to believe otherwise -- with the boys: "There have also been questions of how you spend time with those boys, and why!") The usefulness of this exercise is rather diminished by the insistence, for Dramatic Purposes, that Barrie's stroke of inspiration was somehow a bolt from the blue: thus the concealment of the playwright's prior successes on the stage, the indifference to such outside literary influences as R.L. Stevenson (Treasure Island) and W.S. Gilbert (The Pirates of Penzance), the obliviousness to the prevailing child-worship afoot in England at the time, the denial of the pandering, undaring fashionability of the theme, and the preposterous pretense that it would constitute some sort of insight or revelation, as opposed to self-evident truism, that the play's subtitle, "The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up," applies equally to its author as to its hero. (In real life, so I'm informed, the widow was not even a widow.) Johnny Depp summons up a decent Scottish accent to accompany an indecent smirk. And Kate Winslet is her usual tower of strength and intelligence in spite of a role so narrow in conception that she's not going to be allowed to cough unless she's going to die of it.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason is a case of ill-advised expansionism, not so much (or not just) in the sense of Renée Zellweger packing the pounds back on (without polishing up her English accent), but in the sense of a modestly profitable corner cookie store envisioning itself as the next Mrs. Fields. Granted, it's well within the realm of reason that life, for Helen Fielding's self-deprecating heroine, does not run smoothly into the sunset: "Another year, a brand-new diary." It runs instead in circles -- she keeps on being an insanely possessive idiot, and her prize catch of a boyfriend keeps on being big about it -- till she spirals off on a tangent that takes her over the edge and into a Thai prison for drug smuggling. A tacit admission, that, of the depletion of the material. Though it's too late by then to return to reason, it's never too late to return to convention: a climactic crosstown dash (staple of romantic comedies) in three distinct stages, to four different pop songs. The new director, Beeban Kidron, is a more experienced hand than Sharon Maguire on the first film, but the experiences have tended to be sullying ones: Used People and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Like her predecessor, she provides a feminine touch only to the extent that the proverbial bull in the china shop might well be a cow. Some of the uniformly anemic images are strangely grainy into the bargain, as if sections of long shots or medium shots had been marked off and blown up into closer shots. Colin Firth and Hugh Grant -- the rock and the hard-on -- have come back to do their respective things, with half a heart each.

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