The Polar Express Movie Review

The first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes of Robert Zemeckis' digital banquet The Polar Express draw inspiration from Chris Van Allsburg's wonderful Christmas novel of the same name. Beginning with the late-night arrival of the pinch-me-I'm-dreaming locomotive and ending with the narrator's ringing of a symbolic bell, these whimsical bookend scenes find the perfect holiday ambiance that wraps us in a cozy blanket of adolescent wonder.

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.


Comments

The Polar Express Rating

" Grim "

Rating: G, 2004

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