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The Polar Express

I admit it. I love Christmas. I cherish the myths about it, especially when passing them on to my own kids. Let other editors at this site be grinches. Watch Jimmy Stewart run through the town screaming "Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!" and I choke up. When I first encountered Chris Van Allsburg's book, The Polar Express, I was already in my late teens, but the message still resonated.

It resonated for Tom Hanks, too, and when he discovered the rights to the book were available, he snapped them up. After years of pushing, developing and trying to figure out just how to bring the book's illustrations to life, the film finally reaches the screen. Look beneath the wonder of the motion capture, allowing Hanks to play five roles all while looking like a Van Allsburg illustration. The message of the book remains, but the effort to stretch 32 pages into a feature film occasionally wears it a bit thin.

The story is simple, so naturally it has to be spiced up, right? One Christmas Eve, our hero boy (bodily played by Hanks and voiced by former Spy Kid Daryl Sabara) has possibly grown too old for Santa Claus. As he drifts off to sleep, he overhears his father calling it "the end of the magic," further confirming the doubts his research into the Encyclopedia Brittanica has given him. But then this magical train shows up in his front yard, and a mysterious figure (Hanks, looking most like himself) beckons

Storywise, we all know where this is heading, and the challenge of the script is to put as much exciting distance between the beginning of the journey and its natural conclusion. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr., working with director Robert Zemeckis, fill the gap with dizzying set pieces that only happen once or twice too often. It's hard not to feel that a digression into the journey of a golden train ticket floating through the air is an unnecessary nod to the feather imagery of Zemeckis and Hanks' earlier collaboration, Forrest Gump. Though the original book's illustrations included a twisty mountain top, the film tries to top that with a couple of sections of roller coaster track - thrilling to the kids, especially in IMAX 3-D, no doubt - and a perilous journey across an icy lake with no track at all.

But we've seen such things before, though never quite with this visual panache. As beautiful as it is, though, it's hard not to fall into the middle section of The Polar Express as more of an attraction than a story. It looks so much like a cool Disneyland ride never built that even a few actors seem more like audioanimatronic figures than animated ones. This unfortunately happens most with the late Michael Jeter in an otherwise clever dual role as the train's engineers; much of his schtick gets repeated, with even the same motions.

What the script lacks in compelling action, it makes up for with interesting characters, even if few of them have real names. One that does get named is Billy, physically acted by Peter Scolari, a lonely child for whom "Christmas just never works out." He keeps himself separate in the caboose of the train, and has the greatest character arc of all the children. As the film progresses, you can see Scolari grow from tentative to joyously confident, and you buy it.

The other kids are entertaining, though Hero Boy's continued doubts seem a little hard to accept when drawn out over an hour and a half. Come on, kid, THIS TRAIN SHOWED UP IN YOUR FRONT YARD! It could be a dream, true, but midway through he disproves that and still has trouble accepting the truth. But then, each child has a lesson to learn. Know-It-All (Eddie Deezen, one getting to do his own voice) must learn humility, and "Hero Girl" (Nona Gaye) must learn to trust her leadership abilities, though she shows them from the very beginning.

Hero Boy at least has the excuse of supernatural figures apparently trying to sow doubts. And the midsection does have a lot of dream logic to it. At one point, the boy ends up on top of the train, only to encounter a hobo (Hanks again) spouting philosophy and bad coffee. Serving as an occasional deus ex machina (like you need one in a story about Santa Claus), the hobo may also be a ghost. Had Zemeckis done the hobo effects in a straightforward live-action film, the character would scare the living crap out of children.

Which leads us back to the amazing look of the film. There's no other word for it: amazing. It's a moving painting, with sumptuous backgrounds that never take us out of the story because they match every element of the film. It's pretty, and that may be enough for some.

You can take the ride, and won't be disappointed. But for a holiday film to really last, it has to be able to withstand repeated viewings, and then The Polar Express has cracks that start to show. Not big ones, not terribly annoying ones, but enough to make it harder and harder to hold onto the simple message of the original story.

Believe. For most of The Polar Express, you can.


Derek McCaw

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