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The Polar Express
Reviewed by Gary Mitchel, © 2004

Format: Movie
By:   Robert Zemeckis (director) and Chris Van Allsburg (writer)
Genre:   Fantasy
Released:   Released November 10, 2004
Review Date:   November 10, 2004
Audience Rating:   Rated G
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

A while back I came up with a theory about Christmas movies. It goes that every actor wants to do at least one film with a Christmas theme or set during the Yule season at some point in his or her career. The reason being that it doesn't matter how good the film actually is, if it's "classic" material or not, because every movie with anything to do with Christmas in any way gets TV airtime every December. This theory is the only explanation I've ever come up with for Jingle All the Way and Reindeer Games.

The latest Christmas flick to come out this year (but not the first, since Ben Affleck inflicted Surviving Christmas on us) is The Polar Express. It is an adaptation of a kids' novel and, as far as I'm aware, the first feature-length all-CG Christmas movie. It also has some powerhouse talent behind it, teaming up once more director Robert (Forest Gump) Zemeckis and Tom ("Run, Forest, run!") Hanks. I'm not sure which one talked the other one into doing the film, but we all win from the pairing.

The story follows the adventures of a boy, named "Hero Boy" in the credits. Our hero has just hit that age where he's beginning to doubt the whole Claus/elf/presents deal. Then on Christmas Eve, just as he's falling asleep, he hears a thunderous noise as a steam locomotive rolls down his quiet snow-covered street and stops. He runs outside and meets the conductor (Tom Hanks, in one of several roles), who explains that the train is the Polar Express, bound for the North Pole. Of course, Hero Boy boards the train.

From there he makes friends with two other kids on the train, Nona Gaye as "Hero Girl" and Peter Scolari as "Lonely Boy." Am I the only person that hopes that Hanks and Scolari's re-teaming here will lead to a Bosom Buddies reunion flick? There is also a nerd kid (listed as "Know-It-All," voiced by Eddie Deezen) who is kind of annoying, and a host of other nameless background tykes.

Anyway, the three main kids stick together through several nerve-wracking adventures as the train makes its way North. The kids also meet some other characters living on the train as it rockets along the tracks, including a strange hobo also voiced by Hanks.

Naturally, the thing that is going to astound people about The Polar Express is the animation. It is the finest CG animation I have ever seen. Cloth moves like cloth. The skin on the characters is amazingly textured. The light and shadows are incredible. Hair tufts and blows in the wind like the real thing. In some places it's hard to believe that it's not real. Thanks to the facial and motion capture tech, the characters are really ALIVE in ways that I haven't seen since the Final Fantasy flick, but even more so. Unlike Final Fantasy, which seemed like a really long cut scene from a video game with wooden (but highly detailed) puppets, these characters exude real performances through the lifelike animation.

In fact, the animation is too good in places. In a lot of scenes, especially in the early parts of the movie (the first musical sequence in particular), it's even creepy and disturbing. I know there's actually some sort of science thing about that, how some things can be too human like for comfort, and this film hits that mark in a few places. In other places, the animation has a real storybook look and feel that just transports you into the film. That's why it's so jarring when you hit the hyper-real scenes. I think that if they had stuck with the storybook look for the whole movie, it would have been magnificent, instead of "merely" great.

As per the rule of all kids' movies, there are several musical sequences. Most of them enhance the film, except for one near the end that I'm going to spoil for you now. I'm going to do so because you, my fellow genre fans, need to be warned so you're not as jolted as I was.

The elves are celebrating and dancing, music swells, and we pan to Steven Tyler — as an elf — singing some rock Christmas tune. They captured his face perfectly, and it was a shock that slapped me right out of the movie for a few moments. Now, I like Aerosmith as much as the next guy, but Mr. Tyler's vocals do not fit the tone of the movie at all. Up to this point it had this kind of timeless/fifties feeling, and sticking him in there puts the breaks on it. Plus, seeing Tyler in a cute red felt suit with little elfin boots made it that much worse. I pulled a point off the film just for that.

Overall, The Polar Express is a very good movie. Some scenes might be too intense for younger kids, but for the older ones it's a really fun roller-coaster ride. The direction is great, the performances are well done, the animation is amazing, the landscapes are gorgeous. When the characters reach the North Pole, the film is pure magic. Everyone but die-hard Scrooges will enjoy it. I don't know if it will ever attain "classic" status like Miracle on 34th Street or It's a Wonderful Life, but you can count on seeing it on TV for many Decembers to come.

RevolutionSF contributor Gary Mitchel's holiday checklist: Cute red felt suit? Check. Pointy elfin shoes? Check. Gigantic hair and lips? Coming soon.

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