Based on the popular children’s novel by Chris Van Allsburg, the computer-animated feature The Polar Express tells the story of a young lad (identified in the credits only as Hero Boy) who has recently stopped believing in Santa Claus. Whereas some children take this idea in stride, Hero Boy seems somewhat bitter about it. One Christmas Eve, as he sleeps in his bed, a gigantic locomotive pulls up in front of his house. The kindly Conductor tells the kid that the train is bound for the North Pole and invites him for a ride.
The skeptical Hero Boy hops on board and meets several other children, including Hero Girl and the self-explanatory Lonely Boy, who laments that “Christmas never works out” for him. During the ride, the Conductor and his staff of dancing waiters entertain the children with a delightful musical number inspired by the hot chocolate they are serving. Hero Boy also encounters a hobo who rides atop the train and seems to appear at opportune moments – just when someone needs help. Eventually they reach their destination, where Santa Claus eagerly awaits them.
To describe The Polar Express is to leave out what’s most enjoyable about it: the sheer sense of magic it contains in every frame. The plot is pretty simple and straightforward, but everything surrounding it is utterly magical. For starters, the train ride is fraught with peril: the accelerator gets stuck during a precipitous mountain pass. As it tries to navigate the sharp inclines and steep drops, the train rockets through the countryside like a roller coaster. In another scene, ice covers the tracks, sending the train sliding back and forth while Hero Boy and the others try to hold on. The hobo and Hero Boy even ski on the roofs of the train cars. During these dangerous moments, there is nevertheless a sense that it would be impossible for anyone to be hurt. It’s as though an unseen force (Kris Kringle?) is watching over them. I can’t imagine any child (or many adults, for that matter) failing to be swept up in the idea of a thrilling, hair-raising ride to a magical land.
There have already been a number of computer-animated films. Most of them have been amazing to look at, but The Polar Express brings a scope and texture to the genre that is unparalleled. To achieve the film’s look, director Robert Zemeckis used a process known as motion capture. It involves putting hundreds of little sensors on Hanks and the other actors, who then give full-bodied performances while a computer records their every move and facial expression. These recordings are then digitized and put into the context of the film as animation. In other words, each move made by the Conductor was actually made by Tom Hanks on a set somewhere. The process allows the human characters to seem more real. It also provides greater opportunity for Hanks to embody the characters he is playing. Unlike, say, Mike Myers, who lent only his voice to Shrek, Hanks gets to create postures and body languages for each role he plays.
It is worth mentioning that this technique allowed Hanks to play five roles: the Conductor, the hobo, Santa Claus, Hero Boy’s father, and, yes, Hero Boy himself. The actor came up with different physical manifestations for each character, so you see his performance literally all over the film.
Additionally, the whole production design is much richer than anything we’ve seen before. This is especially true during the North Pole segment, where the details are so intricate that you will doubtlessly wish such a wonderful place actually existed. There’s real eloquence to the design of the North Pole. Imagine every childhood fantasy you’ve ever had multiplied by one hundred: toys everywhere, gigantic Christmas trees alight with sparkling bulbs, thousands and thousands of happy elves milling about. The movie superbly conveys the idea that Santa’s workshop is a place where the unbelievable can happen. A sequence in which we see Santa’s sleigh being loaded up with toys is, in particular, a marvel of imagination.
For years, computer-animators have been on a quest to create human characters that are photo-realistic. (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was heretofore the most accomplished in this regard.) I’ve always been somewhat against this concept. Why make it look 100% real instead of just shooting it real? The joy of computer-animated films is their ability to launch us into new realms of fantasy. Although the human characters in The Polar Express do achieve a high level of photo-realism, they are surrounded by images of the fantastical, so it all works. A whole universe is created that we, the audience, gladly surrender ourselves to.
For children, Christmas is a magical time. It is a time when dreams come true, when the whole world lights up, when the impossible becomes possible. The Polar Express completely understands this fact. Its rich characters, spectacular visuals, and unbridled sense of awe and wonder make this the kind of movie families will want to watch together every holiday season.
( out of four)
The Polar Express is rated G. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
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