The Walk: Thrilling if whimsical roller coaster ride

As long as director Robert Zemeckis keeps his high-flying adventure The Walk in the air, the film soars with excitement. But the actual walk — high in the sky above lower Manhattan — only takes about 45 minutes. That leaves the moviemaker with more than an hour on the ground. How Zemeckis uses special effects to make the walk feel real is a wonder but he falls short when developing why it matters to the characters.

The story in this opener of the 53rd annual New York Film Festival is true. Back in 1974, when the gleaming Twin Towers of the World Trade Center first dominate the Manhattan skyline, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit decides, to fulfill his destiny, he must walk on a wire that he stretches between the buildings. That the Towers reach 110 stories in the sky doesn’t deter the man’s ambition. History tells us how the story ends; Zemeckis makes a movie about how it happens.

Most people would consider a man who wants to walk in the air high above the ground a serious guy. Yet, in the film’s first half, Zemeckis creates a comic book. Instead of seriously exploring what’s behind Petit’s drive, he stages the first 60 minutes with a whimsical style that plays, at times, like slapstick comedy. As Zemeckis fills the screen with exaggerated personalities who reveal the backstory with humorous strokes, he relies on Alan Silvestri — the composer of his movie Forrest Gump — to use music to let us know when an inspirational moment is about to occur.

While the documentary about Petit’s walk, Man on Wire, describes the dreamer’s reasons to pursue his ambition, Zemeckis simplifies the man’s drive in favor of a broad approach to the story. We learn little about how Petit thinks, what he fears and what he wants. Instead, in the hands of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (and his well-intentioned French accent), the character emerges as a fun-loving man with a fascination about the circus. Zemeckis never reaches far enough under the surface to learn what could inspire a man to walk through the air.

All this changes, of course, when the film takes to the air. As Petit begins the final preparations for his walk, and begins the journey, the movie starts to thrill. Zemeckis astounds with how he uses the 3-D camera, and his command of special effects and innovative editing, to make us feel we are in mid-air with Petit as he soars. As exciting as this edge-of-the seat experience may be, however, its impact would be stronger if Zemeckis had treated the first half differently. If we had the chance to better know Petit when he begins to walk, we would be more invested in the outcome. With Zemeckis, we ultimately marvel as much at what the moviemaker accomplishes with his camera and computer as what Petit wonders with his wire.

Perhaps the most enduring element of The Walk is to imagine the Twin Towers as they once were. Despite the film’s misses, this visual reminds us of the majesty they brought to the Manhattan skyline and the dreams they inspired.

Film Nutritional Value

The Walk

* Content: Medium. The hair-raising pursuit of an ultimate walk through the air is a visual wonder dampened by under-developed characters.

* Entertainment: High. When the film takes flight, it soars; until then it’s grounded by a pedestrian script and predictable characters.

* Message: Medium. The film is less a tribute to the man who dared to fly than the director who dares to use the medium in inventive ways.

* Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to take a roller coaster ride at the movies is always relevant. But this one may leave you hungry.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. While the film could be more focused, it does offer an opportunity to talk as a family about what the man on screen and the one behind the camera accomplish.

(The Walk is rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking. The film runs 123 minutes.)

4 Popcorn Buckets

Throughout his celebrated career, Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis has demonstrated a creative passion for using special effects to advance a narrative. Since he started making movies more than 30 years ago, he has delivered a range of technological achievements that, occasionally, also develop characters. Here are a few of the ones we remember.

Romancing the Stone (1984)

Before discovering what a computer can do for movies, Zemeckis emphasized character in this entertaining twist on the adventure movie reboot introduced by the Raiders of the Lost Ark a few years before. With Kathleen Turner as a romance novelist who needs some excitement in her life, and Michael Douglas as the man she loves to torment, Zemeckis focuses on the chemistry between the two leads. Especially captivating is how he directs Turner to deliver one of her most balanced performances as a woman who surprisingly discovers her inner dare devil.

Back to the Future (1985)

A year later, Zemeckis became a directing superstar when he helmed this warm-hearted fantasy that introduced a television star to the movies. With Michael J. Fox as the time-traveling Marty McFly, and Christopher Lloyd as his favorite wacky scientist, the director found a perfect vehicle to blend his love for the visual with the dramatic need for the emotional. And, if the sequels somewhat dim the memory of the original, take a fresh look at the first film as if you were seeing it for the first time. It’s wonderful.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

In The Walk, Zemeckis shows a tendency to get so excited about what he can accomplish visually that he overlooks the fundamentals of character development. That’s what continues to haunt this ambitious film that looks so much better than it sounds. Of course the brilliance of how Zemeckis mixes animation and live action cannot be denied. It just would have been nice if the wit in the words would have matched the genius of the images.

Forrest Gump (1994)

Perhaps because the story emphasizes character over special effects – or the power of Tom Hanks’ ageless portrayal of the magical hero – this Zemeckis Oscar winner plays more like a performance piece than a technology piece. Even as he demonstrates a mastery of the wizardry, the director keeps the gimmicks in balance to tell the heartwarming story of a simple man who believes in the good in everyone. Years later, we remember the beauty of the story more than the camera tricks, perhaps because Hanks is too good an actor to let anything get in his way.

Cast Away (2000)

Once again Tom Hanks finds himself carrying a Zemeckis film with a remarkable characterization. This time – except for the initial plane crash sequence that lands the actor alone on an island – the director leaves the effects at home in favor of giving the actor room to breathe on screen. Unfortunately, Zemeckis feels obliged to give the Hanks character unnecessary backstory in a tiring prologue and a tacked-on coda. Sadly, by the time the film ends, we forget how captivating a man alone on an island can be.

Flight (2012)

In Zemeckis’ strongest film since Forrest Gump he found an ideal messenger in Denzel Washington to carry forward his balance of technology and humanity. While the director again shows how he masters special effects – primarily in the airplane sequences that set up the conflict – the real drama comes to life in Washington’s haunting eyes as a man desperate to cling to his illusions about himself. The director, as he did with Tom Hanks, simply knows when to let an actor breathe on screen.

With The Walk, Robert Zemeckis reminds us how good he can be when given a visual challenge. And, as his films show, he brings characters to life, too. When he wants to. In the meantime, the effects can be incredible.