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Issue Date:  November 26, 2004

Incredible stories on screen

Jamie Foxx brings 'Ray' to life; 'The Incredibles' and 'Polar Express' animate the skies


Ray is a must-see for the magnetic performance of Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, but especially for the chance to hear again some of that blind artist’s best music. Mr. Foxx does much more than capture the external mannerisms of the star, who apparently reviewed a rough cut of the film before dying in June. Foxx draws on his own training as a classical pianist to convey a deep sense of the pain and joy that was behind an original genius. Ray Charles managed to connect with a huge popular audience, black and white; even those who have only a dim awareness of his development from rowdy dancehall pianist to the master who combined gospel, rhythm and blues and country-western styles will exult in the confidence, passion and playfulness that Mr. Foxx projects.

Director Taylor Hackford has not made a great movie; it suffers from superficial flashbacks and an abrupt summary of Charles’ later years. The tragedies of his childhood in northern Florida -- his brother’s fatal accident and his own gradual descent into blindness -- become merely shocking aspects of conventional film biography, though his mother Aretha Robinson (Sharon Warren) is memorable in her insistence that her son learn independence. Some of the psychology is superficial, but the film shows the vitality of popular culture in a time of segregation.

Fortunately, like Charles’ own memoir Brother Ray, the film avoids the pitfalls of hagiography. Though we are charmed by his courtship of the churchgoing Bea (Kerry Washington), the troubled nature of their marriage is not disguised. The pressures of constant traveling and performing are made convincing, especially because Charles depended on heroin and liked to feel the arms of women to decide if they were beautiful. Margie Hendricks (Regina King), one of his backup singers with whom he had a fierce intimacy, makes us understand the mutually destructive nature of such relationships. In addition, Charles understood early in his career that his talent was being exploited by managers and record companies, and the movie is unafraid to show that he too could be ruthless, even with his loyal road manager, Jeff Brown (Clifton Powell).

“Ray” sometimes reverts to being the conventional story of victory over physical handicap, prejudice and heroin, yet it helps us understand why the singer’s challenging of segregated audiences in Georgia was a breakthrough in America’s still-limited racial progress. Working with screenwiter James L. White, Mr. Hackford rightly emphasizes the evolution of Charles’ musical genius. Starting as a clone of Nat King Cole, Charles kept reinventing himself while remaining a true original. As for Mr. Foxx, he deserves an Oscar for the uncanny way he not only imitates Charles’ walk and gestures but also conveys the confident triumph of the inner man. Wisely, Mr. Hackford uses the artist’s own voice for most of the songs; no CD will make this movie superfluous.

The Incredibles, the new Walt Disney/Pixar hit, succeeds not just because of its technical mastery of animation but because it has a sense of humor about superheroes. Children should respond most to the lengthy testing of Mr. Incredible’s invincibility (though he needs help from his wife, Elastigirl), but adults may prefer early scenes in which they are a suburban couple known as Bob and Helen Parr (voiced by Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter), who have been forbidden to employ their special powers. They are blessed with a teenage daughter, Violet (Sarah Vowell), who can make herself invisible, a young son, Dash (Spencer Fox), and a baby, but a societal backlash against heroes has left the police as the public’s only resource against crime. This means that Bob languishes all day handling insurance claims and Helen has to stay home to warn her children not to use their special powers.

Brad Bird, a veteran of “The Simpsons,” who is both director and screenwriter, has made a cartoon film with a thesis. The music shows restraint; the settings are often spectacular. Though the villainous Syndrome is a rather flat character, his role fits the movie’s thesis; he is plotting to create a world without heroes, in which “everyone is special, so no one is.” Bored by his office routine, Bob occasionally goes out with his old sidekick Lucius Best, aka Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), listening to police calls and hoping for an opportunity for some off-hours heroism. Accordingly, Bob is all too easily recruited by Syndrome’s slinky assistant, Mirage (Elizabeth Peña), to take part in a special mission in which he can employ his Incredible skills. Helen believes he is off on a business trip; when she finds out the truth, she returns to her own super-status, taking along her specially talented older children on a mission to rescue her husband.

The climax goes on too long and contains too many fireballs, but demonstrates convincingly that mother and children are also Incredibles. The conclusion doesn’t resolve the problem of how society should deal with people of extraordinary talents, but by then most spectators will feel they have survived enough shocks to feel adequately entertained.

The Polar Express is the much-heralded “Christmas” animated movie that seems accurately aimed at younger children and their grandparents. It says a lot of positive things about believing but, predictably, has nothing to do with the religious origins of Christmas. A triumph of the latest digital technology, the film stars Tom Hanks as the conductor of a train headed for Santa-land, as well as in four other roles -- the boy hero, his father, a hobo and Santa. Adapted from a successful children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg that earned the Caldecott award for its illustrations, “The Polar Express” improves on the original by expanding the details of an exciting train ride and provides a sense of goodwill to humanity that has been sadly absent in many pseudo-clever children’s films.

It is Christmas Eve and a nameless 8-year-old boy is anxiously in bed, worrying about Santa Claus. He has reasons for doubt hidden away in a folder, including a newspaper story about department store Santas on strike. Suddenly the boy hears the sounds of a train pulling up in front of his house; after some hesitation, though still in his pajamas, he heeds the conductor’s call to climb aboard.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, who with William Broyles Jr. wrote the screenplay, “The Polar Express” introduces us to other pajama-clad passengers, including a girl (Nona Gaye) and a lonely boy (Peter Scolari) whom she and the hero manage to get on the train. There is a wonderful sequence in which dancing waiters serve hot cocoa to the delighted children. In another, the hero encounters a hobo who dispenses ambiguous counsel, and one of the tickets flies out of the train, leading to a dangerous and complex pursuit. Whether the picture would be more effective with live actors is a fair question. It’s clear that the video-game dangers on the trip go on too long. Such sequences may even be a little scary for the very young.

Some of the interpersonal exchanges between the conductor and the children and among the children themselves are subtle and ultimately reassuring, though at times they barely avoid the sentimental. At the end the conductor tells the hero that the important thing with a train is not where it’s going but to climb aboard. As usual in such stories, we are left with a sense that adults will never get the point; only (some) children have enough imagination to do so.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 26, 2004

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