Almost every computer-created frame of The Polar Express is a visual beauty to behold, but the narrative program’s end result like it was run by a bunch of Christmastime elitist snobs.
How else to write off the way the narrating protagonist, reflecting on his incredible journey to the North Pole, writes off his own sister as a non-believer just because she grew out of hearing a magical bell?
The message is not so much that believing keeps you young as it does guarantee membership in an exclusive club. Plus, it’s almost exclusively tied to faith in the Santa icon and not the Christmas spirit. And if we don’t buy it, it’s Festivus for the rest of us.
It’s a strangely flat “or else” resolution to a film based on the beloved, but short, 1985 book by Chris Van Allsburg beefed up to feature-film length by co-writer William Broyles Jr., producer and star Tom Hanks and co-writer/director Robert Zemeckis.
It’s the story of a young boy who’s not really buying the Santa bit anymore, but is, on Christmas Eve, invited aboard The Polar Express, a North Pole-bound train whose ability to stop on a small side street should be proof enough for most children that Santa exists.
Many kids are passengers on the train, but only one will be the first child to receive a gift from Santa that year.
Through the advances of a technological process called “performance capture,” the most miniscule of actors’ movements were fed into a computer before being animated over with the use of computer-generated imagery.
The film enthralls with its storybook look and is endowed with a nighttime softness and mostly smooth, relaxed fluidity (although the stiffness of the facial expressions is a letdown in some crucial scenes). Zemeckis also injects it, at least early on, with the sort of filmmaking energy he brings to his live-action work.
The tracking shot of an un-punched ticket whisked through a train window, through the mountains and back again is an animated bookend to Zemeckis’ floating-feather scene in Forrest Gump. And, at least before the repetition, the amusement park-ride moments (with plenty of rollercoaster-style point-of-view shots) crackle with the exciting potential of this process.
From an acting standpoint, Hanks embodies the physical aspect of five roles in the film — “Hero Boy,” as he’s called, the Conductor, the Hobo, Hero Boy’s father and Santa. (Excepting Hero Boy, all resemble Hanks in some way.)
His is not a poor job, but for a process meant to capture an actor’s idiosyncrasy, Hanks shows surprisingly little spark here. And for all that the Hobo ultimately means to the story, his character seems created just to have given Hanks a little bit more to do.
He is one of several numerous pads added to a film with about three times as many minutes as its source had pages — an unenviable task, but Zemeckis and company seem to lose their imagination in the second and third acts.
How else to explain the empty-mall feeling of the North Pole, complete with piped-in Christmas carols (cribbed somewhat from Shrek), the hokey musical bits (co-written by Glen Ballard and sometimes sung by Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler as an elf) or the lack of tension (as the Know-It-All Boy even admits, what does it matter if it’s five to midnight if it’s been that way for an hour)?
Sadly, the ultimately destination for The Polar Express is to be a film better remembered and commended for the technological boundaries it barrels through rather than the story it tells.