Do you know what I mean when I say, "pseudo reality?" If you do, this film
is probably not for you. The target audience, mostly under 8, will not
likely have made much sense of terms like that yet. They might, however,
wonder what the North Pole looks like when Santa and his reindeer take off
for their Christmas rounds. So, if you are someone who has always wanted to
see such things as Santa City, its elfish population, the big guy's sleigh,
personal tree, gift bag and other accoutrements, climb aboard "The Polar
Express" where you'll find several iterations of Tom Hanks, a warming
adventure, and good, non-alcoholic cheer.
Bob Zemeckis has put together a team of Tom Hankses and superb digital
artists to create 3-D images that are as close to the cutting edge of the art
as there is these days. Missing in his film, however, is much humor (except
for a touch of antic behavior now and then), drama (not a villain in sight),
or sense of possibility. He must, of course, get a big pat on the back for
technical wizardry in the cause of seasonal devotion. He has gifted parents
world-wide a splendid outing with their kids.
That's the realistic side of it. In the fantasy, young "Hero Boy" (Hanks) is
at an age when the fabric of belief in Santa Claus is being ripped apart by
the surgical knife of awareness. Clinging to the adored illusion, he goes to
sleep on Christmas Eve and dreams an adventure. It starts with the sound and
shudder of a train arrival outside his window. He runs outside in the snowy
winter night and, as the steam of the engine settles down, discovers a
wondrous train and an amiable conductor (Hanks) who invites him aboard.
He meets an equally wondrous little girl of his age who becomes friend and
companion through the ensuing exploits, "Hero Girl" (Nona Gaye). During a
mixup about her ticket and its near loss, Hero Boy chases her and the
conductor across the top of the train and encounters Scrooge (Hanks) who isn't
exactly a nay-sayer about the holiday and its gift-giving traditions but is a
rag-tag image of a hobo. Zemeckis apparently calculates that a truer
rendition of this timeless character might be too much for modern tots to
take, so avoids anything harsh, greedy or evil in the character. He's
probably here to suggest the possibility of a villain. Fine. Nothing bad's
going to be on Santa's train!
On these tracks across frozen seas, up and down roller-coaster thrills,
ski jumps and a musical interlude, we also meet fellow travelers Lonely Boy
(Peter Scolari) and pesty Know-It-All kid (Eddie Deezen). Zemeckis adapted
the notion from a book by Chris Van Allsburg.
Zemeckis' also chose an animation technique based on enactments by real
actors with hundreds of sensors digitally recording their values of movement
in order to guide the animated figures in a realistic manner. What emerges
The 2008 3-D DVD
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4 pairs of special 3-D glasses
2nd Disc in regular 2-D
Theatrical Trailer (2-D)
from this approach are movements that are life-like, especially in subtle
gestures, but with disturbingly awkward rendering of facial expression, given
especially to strange and sometimes disturbing mouth design. If it were a
CGI matchup, I'd go with "The
The action, scenery and visual concepts as a whole are stunning and
befittingly colorful. The lighting effects are near awesome throughout.
Someone gave these elements great care and insight. That's what I came to
see and I wasn't disappointed.
Designed to ensure good dreams for every viewer, this movie should be a
Christmas standard from now until, at least, the next democratic president is
elected. Five (some say six) roles certainly should have made a great payday
package for Mr. Hanks' holiday.
[DVD Update: This 3-D version comes on the eve of the new
democratic president's inauguration, so maybe there's something prescient
about the 2004 comment above. The 3-D effect on DVD is imperfect, but
at times it's magical. Be sure to see how it enhances the flying ticket
sequences. Zip, zoom and pow!]
~~ Jules Brenner