A film review by Craig J. Koban





2004, G, 110 mins.


Body movement performers:

Hero Boy/Father/Conductor/Hobo/ Scrooge/Santa: Tom Hanks / Smoker/Steamer: Michael Jeter / Hero Girl: Nona Gaye / Lonely Boy: Peter Scolari / Know-It-All: Eddie Deezen

Additional voice performers:
Hero Boy: Daryl Sabara / Smoker/Steamer: Andre Sogliuzzo / Sister Sarah: Isabella Peregrina / Lonely Boy: Jimmy Bennett

Directed by Robert Zemeckis/  Written by Zemeckis and William Broyles Jr., based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg

Robert Zemeckis’ new film THE POLAR EXPRESS, an adaptation of the short children’s book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, is the very epitome of everything that is transcending and magical about the cinema.  In the tradition of the greatest of all escapist entertainments, like STAR WARS or THE WIZARD OF OZ, its enormous power is in its ability to transport  the viewer to a different time and place and create a wholly unique story that has so much simple power that it reminds us that we are experiencing the film, not simply watching it. 

If anything, THE POLAR EXPRESS is one of the all-time great watershed films from a technical standpoint, and just may be one of the most beautifully animated, and directed, computer generated features ever made.  To be sure, the film is a remarkable quantum leap in terms of its astounding ability at using computer images to create characters, places, and environments.  No other CGI feature stands close to THE POLAR EXPRESS in terms of scope, quality, and overall aesthetic beauty – your mouth will literally drop at the pageantry of Zemeckis’ visual palette.  Yet, the film is not incredible because of its effects;  it's astounding in what an immersing experience it is – you grow less conscious of its technique and instead become transfixed in it, quickly forgetting that you're watching animation.  THE POLAR EXPRESS is warm, funny, enchanting, exhilarating, visually extraordinary, and a sure-fire masterpiece that will live on for years. 

Before discussing the film’s plot, some basic investigation into the film’s groundbreaking visual style must be mentioned.  Zemeckis, truth be told, is absolutely no stranger to technology in cinema (his WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT was brilliant in the way it integrated animated characters with live action ones, and his FORREST GUMP had its mentally challenged hero interact with real historical figures using computers and old newsreel footage).  Here, in THE POLAR EXPRESS, Zemeckis goes even further with established and widely used technology, and it’s a daring vision to be sure.  THE POLAR EXPRESS, years from now, will be hailed as one of the all-time great technical watershed films.  If STAR WARS revolutionized the entire special effects industry, then THE POLAR EXPRESS will surly revolutionize how animated films will be done in the future.   

Zemeckis’ film is the very first to use a special form of motion capture technology dubbed “performance capture” for its entire running time. Basically, actors are filmed live with special motion capture suits that contain dozens of sensors that, in turn, relay details of the actor’s movements into the computer.  The computer, in turn, develops a virtual three-dimensional image of the actor that can be manipulated in any way by the computer animators.  This technique was used to create the character of Gollum in the LORD OF THE RING films, but in THE POLAR EXPRESS it is used for every character, which gives the film its sense of intense realism.  This seamless marriage of live action with animation is unlike anything you’ve seen before, and the overall detail and realism is absolutely unprecedented.  Some critics have commented on how this technique gives the overall film a “creepy” look.  That may be true, but it also helps to manifest the film’s overall beauty and magic.  I stared at the screen, for the film’s 100 minutes, usually in a state of complete awe, very rare for our special effects saturated film world. 

Zemeckis and company, outside of the obvious technical achievement of the film, have also managed to created a wonderfully entertaining film that, if you consider how sparse the short picture storybook that inspired it was, would have taken great strides to make a manageable and interesting 100 minute feature.  Yet, large fans of the original Christmas classic should not be alarmed – the film version is not a weakly cobbled together series of lengthened set pieces;  rather, it’s an extension of the basic story into something with more emotional depth.  Characters and their personalities are given more weight, and there have been the additions of some virtuoso action set pieces that many will thrill to.  Despite the extensions and additions to the basic story, Zemeckis still manages to get the tone and spirit of the original source material. 

The story itself is in the grand tradition of many family classics (similarities to THE WIZARD OF OZ seem the most obvious and clear cut).  A young boy, never referred to by name, has reached that awkward phase in his life where he has gone from being a true believer in Santa Clause to an agnostic (everyone reaches that paralyzing stage where they begin to ponder the dilemma of delivering toys to ALL of the children of the world in one single night).  Basically, the boy has lost his faith, and is beginning to distrust the whole experience of blindly believing in something.  On a Christmas Eve night he is suddenly awaken by a large rumble.  He gets out of bed and heads for the street outside of his home.  A huge passenger train has magically materialized on his street.  The conductor greets the boy and tells him to get on board, seeing as the train is “The Polar Express” and is heading straight for the North Pole to see Santa.  Of course, to the disbelieving boy, visual proof is what he needs ensure the very existence of Old Saint Nick, so the invite is a highly enticing one.  He gets on board. 

However, the young boy is not the only passenger on a one-way visit to see the jolly man in red.  He meets a colorful assortment of other children - one a gentle and kind hearted African American girl who completely believes in Santa, a Lonely Boy that the train later picks up who seems to live an impoverished life, and another young boy that could be classified as an annoying know-it-all, one of those kids who gives answers to every question and when one is not posted he will give one and answer it in the most pompous way possible.  There is also the character of the conductor (Hanks), who seems to be the stern authority figure on board that is a time management nut, as well as a mysterious hobo figure (Hanks again) that seems to appear and disappear at will and eventually the elves and Santa himself (Hanks, yet again).  Santa is an interesting creation in this one, who is presented more or less as a messiah-like figure that is adored by a crowd of thousands at North Pole that reaches the rush of a rock concert.  Tom Hanks, to his credit, creates six distinct performances – the young boy, the conductor, Santa, the Hobo, the boy’s father, and a wacky puppet. 

Watching this film is like an audio-visual nirvana of the breathtaking, and its sheer level of detail and lifelike subtlety is extraordinary.  There are just so many individual moments that are beautifully and thoughtfully realized.  I especially liked the reveal of the express train, with the steam shimmering in the cold night sky enveloping it a shroud of ominous tranquility.  I also liked one fantastic sequence, which follows a lost ticket (in one long tracking shot) as it gets whisked away in the night sky in a scene that is kind of reminiscent to the floating feather in FORREST GUMP.  There is an exhilarating action scene where the train careens down a immeasurable steep decline that would put most roller coasters to shame, and another very funny song and dance number where waiters materialize to serve all of the children hot chocolate.  There is also a very tense moment when the train is stranded on a vast frozen lakebed and the ice is starting to crack...and so on…and so on…THE POLAR EXPRESS is one grand thrill ride of a film that segues from one breathtaking moment to the next, and it never gets bogged down.   

It's difficult to even begin to lay down credit for this incredible cinematic achievement.  High praise needs to be given to Zemeckis himself, who had the keen foresight and perseverance to see the potential of this short story for a feature length narrative.  Also, it takes a director with a pure strength of vision to see this film though to fruition, and to stretch the very boundaries of modern technology to its limits.  Yet, it's not just the technology that makes THE POLAR EXPRESS one of the more unique film going experiences of the last few years.  The film is a fusion of simple, straightforward storytelling combined with both quiet and introspective moments with big and grand spectacle.  The film has the ability to find beauty and interest with the smallest of details, like a reflection in a hubcap to ingenious shots that reveal the director’s sensitive eye.  All of this, while still having those large scale moments where we thrill to characters and their exploits.  In this sense, THE POLAR EXPRESS is an all-encompassing entertainment. 

There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that THE POLAR EXPRESS is destined to be a family Christmas classic like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and MIRACLE ON 34th STREET.  It's one of those universally appealing classics that is timeless and manages to maintain our interest after multiple viewings.  In an age of family films that are really a mixed bag of overstuffed sentiment and contrived and clichéd stories, THE POLAR EXPRESS is one of the great breaths of fresh air to emerge from Hollywood in many a moon.  Perhaps its greatest strength is in its overwhelming power and beauty and the way it elicits our own cherished and fond Christmas memories.  The film is a skilful tour de force of storytelling and technology, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a more pleasant and magical family entertainment all year. 

It’s truly cinemagic.  

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