There are three movies with fantastical premises hitting theaters this week (four, if you count Billy Bob Thornton's drunken "Bad Santa"), but at least one of them refused to rely on the computer enhancements so prevalent today to get the job done.
"The physical effects are real, there's no blue screen or anything," "Timeline" co-star Billy Connolly boasted recently. "And so when we're on the battlefields, near a real-sized castle, looking at the baddies camped on the opposite hill, they are really there. There are actually regiments on the hill with their horses, fire and tents."
Connolly stars alongside Paul Walker in "Timeline" (whose time-travel effects are, of course, computer-generated), which takes place mostly in 14th century France as a group of archeologists sets out to rescue a stranded professor.
"Computer graphics are a wonderful thing, but when anything new comes into an industry, it's overused," noted "Timeline" director Richard Donner ("The Goonies," "Lethal Weapon"). "When the zoom lens came out, my God, every movie — zoom, zoom, zoom. But then it settled down. It's the same thing with computer graphics.
"For me, a medieval period with castles, raining down arrows and fireballs, if those actors weren't there and didn't hear the sounds, feel the heat of the fire and couldn't touch the walls or run up the stairs — man, I don't know how I would have generated a sense of reality for them."
Computer effects abound in Eddie Murphy's "The Haunted Mansion," which, like the summer smash "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," is based on a Disney theme park attraction. The once edgy "Saturday Night Live" veteran and "Beverly Hills Cop" star, who these days churns out mostly family fare, plays a father who brings his family to a — you guessed it — mansion that turns out to be haunted.
There are spooks and scares of a more heavy-handed variety in "The Missing," a period thriller from Oscar-winning director Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind") that stars Tommy Lee Jones ("Men in Black") and Cate Blanchett ("The Lord of the Rings"). The estranged couple, living in late 19th century New Mexico, must deal with the kidnapping of their daughter, who is taken by an Apache shaman and his band of Army deserters.
Kids are treated poorly in Billy Bob Thornton's latest flick, but in an altogether different way. Thornton plays a department-store Claus prone to drinking, philandering and generally surly behavior in "Bad Santa." The movie, which also stars Bernie Mac ("Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle") and Lauren Graham ("Gilmore Girls"), completed shooting in New York more than a year ago.
All four films will be going up against the continued box-office might of Will Ferrell's "Elf" and last weekend's #1 movie, "The Cat in the Hat" (see "Good Kitty: 'Cat In The Hat' Scratches Out Box-Office Win").