THE POLAR EXPRESS
**1/2(out of 5)
November 10, 2004
Tom Hanks as FATHER
Daryl Sabara as HERO BOY
Nona Gaye as HERO GIRL
Eddie Deezen as KNOW-IT-ALL
Peter Scolari as LONELY BOY
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
“The Polar Express” is based on the classic children’s Christmas story by Chris Van Allsburg, who brought us “Jumaji.” I’m a little too old for it to have been a classic Christmas story from my childhood, and my kids are a little too young to have it make it into their Christmas reading lists. Well, my lovely and gracious wife Carolyn is a reading teacher, and she brought the book home for me to read after seeing the film. And after reading it, I was pretty proud of the fact that I had been able to guess what parts of the film were from the original book and what parts were just padding.
There’s not a whole lot to the original book – not nearly enough to fill out a 90-minute movie. In fact, most of Tom Hanks (who plays multiple roles as the Narrator, the Conductor, the Father, the Hobo and Santa himself) is actually padding.
“The Polar Express” reminds me of what it was like watching “The Grinch” a couple years ago. There was only about 20 minutes of movie that could be culled from the book. The rest was a story manufactured to fill out the rest of the movie. At least with “The Polar Express,” things fit together a little better, although much of the padding is obvious diversions that take the characters off the path for a few minutes before dropping them right back where they were originally to preserve the integrity of the book.
“The Polar Express” tells the story of a boy (simply named Hero Boy) who is at a critical age. He’s starting to lose his belief in Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, he hears the sound of a train roar by his window, and he’s swept away on the Polar Express with a dozen other children for a special visit to the North Pole. Along the way, he meets several new friends, including a ghostly Hobo who’s hitched a ride and a poor kid from the other side of the tracks. The Hero Boy finds out if seeing is believing when he gets his chance to meet the real Santa Claus.
Now, “The Polar Express” isn’t the first Christmas movie to hit the theaters this year. If you blinked before Halloween, you might have actually missed the dreadful “Surviving Christmas.” But it’s the first significant holiday movie of the season, taking advantage of all that Christmas has to offer a film.
The positives of “The Polar Express” are more technological than character driven, which has been the problem that director Robert Zemeckis has faced since he won the Oscar for “Forrest Gump.” A string of films like “Castaway” and “What Lies Beneath” have followed that pushed the limits of cinema technology rather than just telling a good story.
The most notable thing about “The Polar Express” is that it is CGI feature. However, unlike films like “The Incredibles” and “Shrek,” the human characters are not cartoony. They are meant to be photorealistic in the flavor of films like “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.” The only problem with this is that while technology has advanced enough to provide oh-my-God realistic emulations of cloth, hair and water, humans still don’t look quite right.
In fact, rather than the human characters being so realistic that you hardly believe they were computer generated, they look false. It is as if aliens looked at us and tried to duplicate us. There’s something creepy about them, like looking at a doll. (Maybe the fish community felt the same way about “Finding Nemo”…)
If you want the true immersion experience, you might want to catch “The Polar Express” on the IMAX screen. Releasing simultaneously with the standard theatrical release will be a 3-D IMAX experience. I’ll admit that while I’m not dying to see “The Polar Express” again anytime soon, I may just cough up the nine and a half bucks to check it out in the IMAX 3-D.
Although the film is rated G, there are some scenes of peril that might scare some younger viewers. I took my son, who is 3 1/2 right now. He liked certain parts of the movie, but got really scared in others. Additionally, because this is a film about a train, realize that the soundtrack can be very loud at times when it’s not a tender moment with a score that completely rips off Danny Elfman’s in “Edward Scissorhands.”
Still, kids should have fun with this movie. But the real joy of Christmas will be when you pull out the original storybook, snuggle up by the fire with hot chocolate, and read it to your kids on Christmas Eve.