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The Polar Express

In the mood for some good old-fashioned holiday cheer? Then take a ride on The Polar Express, a delightful, if somewhat mechanical, tale about the spirit of Christmas.


Based on Chris Van Allsburg's enchanting, award winning children's book, the story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve, where a doubting young boy lies in his bed, waiting to hear the sound he doesn't know if he believes in anymore: the tinkle of Santa's sleigh bells. What he hears instead, however, is the thunderous roar of an approaching train, where no train should be: it's the Polar Express. Rushing outside in only a robe and slippers, the incredulous boy meets the train's conductor who urges him to come onboard. Suddenly, the boy finds himself embarking on an extraordinary journey to the North Pole, with a number of other children--including a girl who has the tools to be a good leader but lacks confidence; a know-it-all boy who lacks humility; and a lonely boy, who just needs to have a little faith in other people to make his dreams come true. Together, the children discover that the wonder of Christmas never fades for those who believe. As the conductor wisely advises, ''It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on.'' Gives ya goose bumps, doesn't it?


Talk about a vanity project for Tom Hanks. He portrays several of the characters in the film--the conductor, the hobo who mysteriously appears and disappears on the Polar Express, the boy's father. Wait, isn't that Hanks playing Santa Claus as well? But if anyone can pull off some cheesy dialogue about the spirit of Christmas, this Oscar-winning actor can. Interestingly, the film also incorporates adults to play the children (none of the characters have names, actually) with Hanks as the Hero Boy; Hanks' Bosom Buddies pal Peter Scolari as the Lonely Boy; The Matrix Revolutions Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl; and veteran voice actor Eddie Deezen as the Know-It-All Boy. Everyone does a good job but trying to make CGI-created people seem real is a difficult undertaking. With

The Polar Express, director Robert Zemeckis has created an entirely new way to do computer animation called ''performance capture.'' ''[It's a process that] offers a vivid rendering of the Van Allsburg world while infusing a sense of heightened realism into the performances. It's like putting the soul of a live person into a virtual character,'' visual effects wizard and longtime Zemeckis collaborator Ken Ralston explains. Oh, is that all? Problem is, no matter how hard they try, it doesn't work--not completely. Similar to flaws in the 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, virtual characters just can't convey human emotion as well as real-life actors, plain and simple. And with a touching story like Polar Express, that real-life connection is missed at times.


Of course, like the images in the book, it's still an exceptionally beautiful film to watch. Zemeckis enjoys being a filmmaking innovator. He charmed audiences with a lively blend of live action and manic animation in the 1988 classic action comedy Who Framed

Roger Rabbit? and then wowed them with the 1994 Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, blending authentic archival footage of historic figures with the actors. Now, with The Polar Express, it's this performance capture, which gives Zemeckis unlimited freedom in creating the world he wants. And boy, does he make use of it. True, the story is a classic, but the director knows he has to make The Polar Express exciting for the tykes-- simply riding around in a train to North Pole without any thrills certainly wouldn't be enough for the ADD world we live in. To accomplish this, the film is padded with exhilarating scenes, such as the train going on a giant roller coaster ride through the mountains and across frozen lakes (too bad Warner Bros. doesn't have a theme park) and the boy's race across the top of the snowy Polar Express. Even the North Pole is a booming magical Mecca, filled with some pretty boisterous (and weird looking) elves, who like to send Santa off in style Christmas Eve--watch out for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, making a cameo as a jammin' elf. Ho-ho-ho!

Bottom Line

Even though it may lack a human touch here and there, The Polar Express is still a brilliant effort in CGI-animation and will certainly evoke the Christmas spirit in us all.