Bridging the film's beautiful opening and closing, though, are 77 minutes of exhaustive, roller coaster-worthy action sequences, death-defying skids across frozen lakes and approximately 15 harrowing occasions where the beloved Polar Express is inches away from jumping its tracks and killing everybody on board. It's Van Allsburg by way of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it just doesn't fit the initial warm-and-fuzzy mood.
Introducing a pioneering and sorta creepy form of digital filmmaking dubbed "performance capture," in which the film was shot with live actors wearing special sensors which were later matched by computer animators, director Robert Zemeckis pumps vigor into a relatively subdued and simple story of a young boy invited to the North Pole to reinstate his fading belief in Santa Claus (voiced by a solemn Tom Hanks). Van Allsburg's original narration is a piece of Americana that's culled from children's dream on the most delightful night of the calendar year - Christmas Eve.
Zemeckis, a filmmaker recognized more for the technological advancements he's brought to the medium, reaches deep into his special effects stocking and pulls out a visual masterpiece that's as frigid as a lump of coal and as delectable as a fruit cake. As expected, Zemeckis pours his efforts into the groundbreaking animation to create an expressive art form that's light years ahead of the competition. On the emotional side, Polar falls flat and pulls up woefully short on genuine yuletide cheer. You get the sense that Zemeckis would rather perfect the breathtaking journey of a lost train ticket, which floats and soars like Forrest Gump's feather along the twisty tracks, than craft an accurate human response to a child's face-to-face with St. Nick.
The director's ramped-up contributions overshadow the book's inherent message about losing our childhood innocence. The Polar padding includes, but is by no means limited to, the motivational ramblings of a stowaway (Hanks) who may or may not be a ghost, bungee-jumping elves, and insufferable musical numbers about hot chocolate sung by a wooden conductor (Hanks, again).
A lonely lad (voiced by perpetual Bosom Buddy Peter Scolari) sits by himself in the train's caboose until he's required to break into a sappy holiday tune, which morphs into a duet with the sassy African-American girl on board. Their gooey selection is marginally better then the theme park-cheesy jingles that pervade the soundtrack once the Express finally pulls into Santa's headquarters. You're better off picking up Van Allsburg's delightful book this season, and leaving the rest to your own imagination.
If your kids look like this, seek help. Immediately.
Run time: 100 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 10th November 2004
Box Office USA: $0.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $305.9M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Castle Rock Entertainment, Shangri-La Entertainment, Playtone, ImageMovers, Golden Mean, Universal CGI, Warner Bros.
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 55%
Fresh: 110 Rotten: 89
IMDB: 6.6 / 10
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis, William Broyles Jr.
Starring: Tom Hanks as Hero Boy and Father and Conducter and Santa Clause and Scrooge and Hobo, Michael Jeter as Smokey and Steamer, Eddie Deezen as Know-It-All, Chris Coppola as Toothless Boy, Nona Gaye as Hero Girl, Peter Scolari as Lonely Boy, Charles Fleischer as Elf General, Steven Tyler as Elf Lieutenant, Leslie Zemeckis as Mother, Julene Renee as Red Head Girl, Andy Pellick as Pastry Chef
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