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
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.