Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara, and Josh Hutcherson in The Polar Express (2004)


(director/writer: Robert Zemeckis; screenwriters: William Broyles Jr./based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg; cinematographer: Don Burgess and Robert Presley; editors: Jeremiah O’Driscoll and R. Orlando Duenas; music: score by Alan Silvestri/songs by Mr. Silvestri and Glen Ballard; cast: Tom Hanks (Hero Boy/Boy’s Father/The Conductor/The Hobo/Santa), Michael Jeter (Smokey/Steamer), Peter Scolari (Lonely Boy), Nona Gaye (Hero Girl), Eddie Deezen (Know-It-All Boy), Charles Fleischer (Elf General), Steven Tyler (Elf Lieutenant/Elf Singer); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: G; producers: Robert Zemeckis/Steve Starkey/Gary Goetzman/William Teitler; Warner Brothers Pictures; 2004)
“A real snoozer.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A Christmas pic set in the 1950s that is strictly for the tykes and those adults who crave the newest in groundbreaking IMAX techie wonders, not caring a lick if the story is lacking a strong human element and is a real snoozer. I thought of it more as an infomercial to plug Christmas as an ongoing must-fantasy for children to buy into rather than as a heart-warming story. Director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”/”Cast Away”/”Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) co-scripted with William Broyles Jr. the adaptation of the 1985 Chris Van Allsburg’s slim 28-page popular children’s picture book about an unnamed Santa-doubting boy who, on Christmas Eve, dreams that he joined a mysterious train with other children dressed in their pajamas headed for the North Pole. The train looks beautiful wending its way before midnight with its ghostly crew to Santa as it chugs through the icy terrain and moonlit landscape, overcomes a herd of caribou on the tracks and its off the track venture onto a frozen lake, and for dramatic effect the filmmaker makes a gantseh megillah (Yiddish for ‘big deal’) over the African American Hero Girl’s train ticket blown off the train and fluttering like a feather against the train’s outside. Comic relief was attempted by an obnoxious nerdy kid, Know-It-All Boy, who pretended to know everything but how to make the viewer laugh–though he sure tried. Then there’s Lonely Boy from the wrong side of the tracks, as the shy kid’s lesson to be learned is how valuable it is to have friends.

The North Pole has some eye-dazzling computerized scenes of frenzied crowd following Santa-worshiping elves (looking like they could be as equally at home goose-stepping at a Hitler rally or praising the Lord at an evangelical Christian gathering) and an elf rock singer and his band playing loud music for the children, Santa’s enormous toy factory run like a business venture; and, the Man himself appearing more creepy than jolly as he greets the so-called lucky children with inspiring messages about the worth of Christmas and how fortunate the children are to have a Santa who knows who’s been ‘naughty’ and who’s been ‘nice.’ The way this sequence was presented gave me the willies, as it reminded me of something Orwellian rather than something Dickensian.

The film’s theme suggested that you better believe in Santa, or you’re not with it. At the North Pole Hero Boy can get any gift he desires, and he chooses a sleigh bell from Santa’s sled. On his way home he loses his gift, but on Christmas morning the bell appears under the tree. Hero Boy and his sister can hear the bell ring even though his parents cannot and assume it is broken, but it’s stressed that only believers can hear the sound of the bell.

The novelty that enabled all this visual splendor is called “Performance Capture” (the process used by Peter Jackson to create Golem for his Lord of the Rings trilogy). Its technology allows Tom Hanks to play five different characters through the use of the 5 sensors attached to him. The movements of the sensors are recorded and picked up by computers allowing for the animators to create any being the director desires. Tom’s the gruff but kindly conductor, a ghostly hobo, the unbelieving 8-year-old boy hero, the boy’s narrator father and, later, Santa himself. Tom’s also the dude who bought the film rights and hired his pal Zemeckis to direct. They tried to make it less like a pure animation, but one that’s a cross between live action and animation, where the characters look as if they are not real or unreal. It’s a film that grows out of the book’s illustration, and those marvelously realized drawings. But that’s not enough to make it a worthwhile full-length feature movie. Though, I must say, the talented filmmakers have come up with a brilliantly looking film but, alas, one without much of a story. I guess it’s back to the drawing board, because the lesson these adult filmmakers should learn is that a film is not made from technology alone.