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With: (voices) Tom Hanks, Michael Jeter, Peter Scolari, Nona Gaye, Eddie Deezen, Charles Fleischer
Written by: Robert Zemeckis, William Broyles, Jr., based on the children's book by Chris Van Allsburg
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 100
Date: 11/10/2004

The Polar Express (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fun-away Train

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After three years of technological advances and millions of dollars spent, the "realistic" computer animation of Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express isn't all that much better than Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001).

Certain moments will amaze -- notably the close-ups -- but these new digital characters very often look stiff and spooky, like a wax museum dummy that you could swear just moved.

Based on Chris Van Allsburg's children's book, the film tells the story of a group of children who are selected to ride the title train to the North Pole for the honor of witnessing Santa Claus taking flight for his annual Christmas Eve journey. The film does not indicate which children are chosen and why, but it makes a big deal out of a small boy from the poor section of his town.

Our hero is an 8 year-old boy (none of the characters have names) whose belief in Santa Claus is just starting to flag. The train picks him up and he meets a little African American girl, with whom he immediately bonds. The train itself provides a few rollercoaster-like adventures before the passengers arrive safely at the North Pole, where the hero must re-affirm his belief in Santa. The film symbolizes this belief by a person's ability to hear jingle bells.

Once a promising filmmaker, Zemeckis worked his way from small comedies like I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) and Used Cars (1980) to superbly crafted Hollywood entertainments like Romancing the Stone (1984), Back to the Future (1985) and the amazingly brilliant Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) -- a film worthy of Spielberg himself.

Then, suddenly Zemeckis gave it all up, producing a string of soulless behemoths, many of which reside among the worst films ever made: Death Becomes Her (1992), Forrest Gump (1994), What Lies Beneath and Cast Away (both 2000).

The Polar Express unhappily mixes these two tendencies, jumping from stunning, stirring adventure sequences to annoying blunders, like several terrible songs, a cameo by Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, sudden, sweeping camera movements, and a swelling, obtrusive score by Alan Silvestri.

It still has several good points, though. At one point, the train must cross a frozen lake, and through a stunningly edited series of events, Zemeckis creates a gripping, suspenseful sequence of speed, movement and emotional resonance. Likewise, when our three child heroes become lost at the North Pole, the film's design team comes up with a truly awe-inspiring look at the back alleys and cavernous factories that make up Santa's village, far surpassing any other previous cinematic vision.

We must grudgingly give Tom Hanks yet more kudos in his already kudo-clogged career. Without making it entirely obvious, Hanks provides voices for no less than five of the film's main characters, and does a remarkable job with each, especially the boy hero.

Overall, The Polar Express is a serviceable time waster, but its constant, aggravating side will prevent it from being a timeless Christmas classic. Above all, those creepy digital characters will age very badly. But the film also fails in answering some basic questions. Why, if this mysterious train has stopped and picked them up on Christmas night, do the children continue to disbelieve in the magic of Christmas? Up until the very moment that Santa makes his appearance, these children are grumbling. Aren't the train and the elves and the village proof enough? What ever happened to pure faith?

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