Polar Express, The (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Polar Express is cinematic magic - a delightful tale guaranteed to enthrall viewers of all ages. Does that sound like advertising hype, or the words of a publicist? Perhaps, but it's a reflection of how strongly this film pulled me under its spell. For children, this is a glorious adventure, full of excitement, splendor, and plenty of holiday good cheer. For adults, there are deeper meanings to be found, not to mention the bittersweet nostalgia of gazing back through the years to the point where innocence gave way to the curse of maturity.

As I was watching The Polar Express, I was reminded of The Wizard of Oz. The similarities are, at times, remarkable. The characters in this film are on a journey to a mythical place - not Oz, but the North Pole. And they're following train tracks, not the yellow brick road. But the four companions are all searching for something intangible. Our hero, an unnamed boy, is on a quest for faith. His companions are seeking confidence, courage, and humility. The entire story may be the figment of the main character's imagination. But at least there's no Wicked Witch or a surrogate. The Polar Express is a tale with plenty of heart and no traditional villain.

The story begins on Christmas Eve, with a boy who is unable to sleep. He's listening for sleigh bells. He wants to believe in Santa Claus, but his growing sense of logic tells him the annual ride is impossible: the presents would be too heavy and the rate of travel would have to exceed the speed of light. But, instead of hearing the prancing and pawing of each little hoof, he is jarred to full wakefulness by the noise of a train coming to a halt outside of his house. "All aboard!" calls the conductor. "Where are you going?" asks the boy. "Why, the North Pole, of course! This is The Polar Express."

Thus begins the boy's odyssey. On board the train, he meets three of the other passengers: a know-it-all, a shy boy, and an outgoing girl who sometimes doubts herself. Later, the boy will meet a mysterious hobo and the engineers running the train. The conductor is always around, occasionally seeming more officious than helpful. And the journey sometimes turns into more of a roller coaster than a simple train ride.

The film is based on the illustrated childrens' book by Chris Van Allsburg. Because the source material is so short, screenwriters Robert Zemeckis (who also directed) and William Broyles Jr. opened things up a little, developing personalities for three of the background characters, and adding some action/adventure sequences. Despite the changes, however, the movie successfully captures the spirit of the book, and it is likely that fans of one will appreciate the other.

From a technical standpoint, The Polar Express is a masterpiece. It is the first movie to use motion capture for its entire length. (This is the technique that allowed Gollum to seem real in The Lord of the Rings. For motion capture, an actor wears a special suit containing dozens of sensors that relay details of his movement to a computer while he performs in front of a blue screen. This permits a computer to develop a virtual, three-dimensional image of the actor that can then be manipulated by the animators.) The result allows the characters to appear much like real human beings while still retaining a slightly "animated" look. (The humans are intentionally not as real as those in Final Fantasy - a movie that gave some viewers the creeps.) This mixture of live action and computer animation is a powerful tool that has allowed Zemeckis to devise a world unlike anything we have seen on screen before, yet populate it with real-seeming people. In addition, The Polar Express was designed with 3D IMAX theaters in mind (it is the first feature-length movie to feature the IMAX three-dimensional process). However, since most viewers will see it in a conventional theater, Zemeckis made sure that the use of traditional projectors didn't result in a drop-off in quality.

It should come as no surprise that The Polar Express looks amazing. The details are astonishing and the lifelike movement of the human beings helps us to forget that they don't look quite real. There are some amazingly rich and varied scenes, such as one in which a ticket makes a round-trip journey that includes an encounter with an eagle and a few other surprises (the sequence is reminiscent of the excursion of the feather at the opening of Forrest Gump, another Zemeckis film). When hot chocolate is served, we get a spectacular song-and-dance number that recalls "Be Our Guest" from Disney's Beauty and the Beast (although the song isn't as memorable). There are also moments of high adventure, such as a sequence where the brakes fail as the train is racing along tracks that mimic a roller coaster, and an out-of-control dash across a collapsing frozen lake. Then, of course, there's the arrival at the North Pole, where the elves treat Santa Claus like the ultimate rock star.

Most of the roles are played by Tom Hanks, although only in one performance does he look like himself. Hanks has six parts: the conductor (that's where he resembles himself the most closely), the boy, the boy's father, the mysterious hobo, a Scrooge puppet, and Santa Claus. Strangely, although Saint Nick sounds like Hanks, he resembles the Tim Allen version from The Santa Clause. Children who notice probably won't care. Other vocal performers include Michael Jeter (in his final screen appearance before his death) as the two engineers, Nona Gaye as the girl, Peter Scolari as the lonely boy, and Eddie Deezen as the know-it-all.

There's no question that The Polar Express is destined to become a Christmas cinematic classic. Fortunately, DVDs do not wear out, or some parents might find themselves having to buy multiple copies over the years. It has been a long time since there has been a family holiday movie that is this strong and endearing. How the Grinch Stole Christmas pales in comparison, and nothing recent comes close.

As I watched The Polar Express, I was immersed in the experience. On one level, I was a thirty-something critic taking notes, but part of me was a seven-year old boy having trouble getting to sleep on Christmas Eve. That's one of The Polar Express' great strengths: for many viewers, it will seem like the movie is plundering their memories. Who knew how universal some things are?

The techniques used in The Polar Express will allow filmmakers to make a giant leap forward, but that's not something people will be thinking about when they watch this movie - even as some of what it does provokes awe. If I were to consider this a digitally animated film (and it is more animated than live-action), it could stand alongside the best. If you have children, take them with you this holiday season - even if they have seen it, they'll want to see it again. And if you're unencumbered by offspring, go anyway.

Polar Express, The (United States, 2004)

Ranked #10 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2004
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2004-11-10
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1