The Polar Express
2004, G, 100 min. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Starring Tom Hanks, Michael Jeter, Peter Scolari, Nona Gaye, Eddie Deezen, Charles Fleischer.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 12, 2004
Chris Van Allsburg’s magical tale of the Christmas Eve re-education of a Santa-doubting adolescent teetering on the brink of disbelief gets a multimillion-dollar makeover via CGI and a revolutionary new filming process that allows Hanks to "act" five different roles. This isn’t just voice work: Hanks (and the other cast members) were filmed covered from head to toe with tiny beads that, when filmed and dumped into a computer, would mirror the actor’s every subtle movement, allowing the animated version to be as close to the real thing as possible. It’s disconcerting to see Hanks’ familiar facial movements (he’s keen on the old eye crinkle) blossom atop an animated 12-year-old, not to mention the crotchety, time-obsessed conductor of the titular steam engine, which ferries the lad and a group of other dislike-minded kids to the North Pole to prove to them (dammit, Virginia) that Santa does, indeed, exist. Doubting Thomas had it easy compared to the trials these pint-sized Jobs go through as the train chuffs and wheezes its way up the steepest mountain passes and down the other side, skimming ass-over-teapot across a frozen lake, and generally becoming the visual equivalent of a roller-coaster ride through the long, dark night of the soul as it relentlessly grinds on toward the Big Red One. There’s Christmas magic in Zemeckis’ film (from a script by William Broyles), but there’s also a bizarre, palpable sense of unease lurking just below the surface. Nearly all of that is due to the animation style, which faithfully replicates Van Allsburg’s painterly compositions, but doesn’t translate all that successfully to the screen. Watching the humans in The Polar Express is like watching people through a smeary car windscreen – the realism is there, but there’s something a tad skewed and surreal about the whole affair. It’s unnerving, frankly, and adult viewers will be forgiven for wondering when Rod Serling is going to step out from behind a perfectly rendered snowdrift and make his appearance. If the human characters give you the willies, they’re nothing compared to Santa’s elfin minions (believe me, the word fits), who, with their big ears and pug faces, look like micronaut Bowery Boys on a snowblowing bender. Would you want Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall in charge of your holiday cheer? I thought not. To top off the bad news – and this could only have come as a horrific shock to Van Allburg and his adult fans – the Christmas Eve North Pole blowout has the red-suited elves rocking out to … Aerosmith! To quote Jon Stewart, "Whaaaa?" Broyles’ script is faithful to the spirit of the original 30-page text while adding various hair-raising events at every turn, but Zemeckis and DreamWorks’ legions of animators have sorely goofed with this new animation style, a blend of hyper-unrealism that is at once too fluid and not fluid enough. In a word, it’s soulless, and despite a strong storyline that brims with hope, possibility, and enough warm and tender moments to make The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Jack Skellington put a batch of leadshot in his bone-daddy noggin, it is (in another word) creepy. (The film is also being screened in 3-D at the IMAX Theatre.)