The Polar Express


Tom Hanks as Hero Boy/Father/Conductor/Hobo/Scrooge/Santa Claus
Leslie Zemeckis as Sister Sarah/Mother
Eddie Deezen as Know-It-All
Nona Gaye as Hero Girl
Peter Scolari as Lonely Boy

The Polar Express is a visually luminous, groundbreaking tour-de-force of animation, remarkable acting, and breathtakingly imaginative scenery supporting a rather standard and unimaginative Christmas story.

A young boy is taken on a magical train ride to the North Pole to restore his belief in Santa.

The Polar Express is a stunningly gorgeous work of visual art. Like the children’s book it is based on, it depicts a magical train ride to the North Pole in scenes of shining Arctic beauty, with a brilliant night sky, stark mountain ranges, and luminous Northern Lights. More mundane scenes, too, are conveyed with the same artistry, with everything from the warm texture of a wool blanket to the hissing steam of an old-fashioned radiator drawn in careful and loving detail.

Director Roger Zemeckis uses a new animation process especially developed for the movie called Performance Capture, a step beyond the computer-generated motion capture and computer-generated sets seen in recent movies. Fabrics and wallpaper were scanned into the design, while other scenery, such as the fantastic forests and Santa’s oddly industrial elfin village, were created straight from the designers’ imaginations. The animation gloriously captures the train as it races over a lake of cracking ice and through high mountain ranges, a thrilling roller coaster ride that seems expressly designed for the 3-D IMAX version of the movie. Another scene, in which tap-dancing waiters serve hot chocolate to the Polar Express passengers, is giddily reminiscent of the dancing silverware extravaganza in Beauty and the Beast.

Finally, hundreds of electronic markers attached to Lycra body suits and to the actors’ faces and bodies captured every discernable movement and nuance of expression, recording everything in three dimensions. Virtual sets and digitized actors are combined, so that every possible shot and every possible angle exists in the computer program for the director to shape. The versatile Tom Hanks beautifully portrays a host of characters, including the Hero Boy, the enigmatic Conductor, and Santa Claus himself, and it is in capturing each subtle nuance of Mr. Hanks’ many talented performances that the technology proves its worth.

It is a pity, then, that, despite all this artistry, the story itself is fairly slender. Little happens to challenge the Hero Boy during his ride: the thrilling coaster rides are simply an adrenaline rush, like the opening credits to a James Bond film, without the genuine sense of danger found in, for example, The Lion King‘s wildebeest stampede, or the real sense of evil in the Beauty and the Beast mob out to “kill the Beast.” The children, besides Hero Boy and Girl, are largely self-centered and unappealing, along for the ride and the presents at the end of the trip. Audience members hoping for a Willy-Wonka like comeuppance will be sadly disappointed.

Nor does the message of the story evolve much beyond the platitudes of a typical television Christmas special. The Girl character encourages her fellow passengers to believe in Christmas by vividly describing the joys of being with family during the holiday, and Santa Claus tells one child that “friends are the best present,” but the movie fails to reach even the moral depth of The Charlie Brown Christmas Story, in which the Peanuts kids learn to look beyond their immediate joy to the larger meaning of the holiday.

The exception is Peter Scolaris’s moving Lonely Boy from “the wrong side of the tracks,” who tells the Girl and Hero Boy simply that “Christmas just doesn’t work out for me,” a heartbreakingly matter-of-fact statement that encompasses a lifetime of disappointments. His song, “Believe,” in which he pleads that he wants to believe but cannot, is easily the most affecting, not least because, unlike Girl and Hero Boy, he is trying to believe despite the fact that he has been given little to believe in until now.

It is Hero Boy’s struggle to believe, however, which is at the core of The Polar Express, the story of a ride to the North Pole designed to restore our Hero’s belief in Santa and, by extension, in all the magic in the world. It is disappointing, then, that despite some ambiguous hints that the ride may be a dream, at the end of the movie the Boy is actually given concrete evidence of the trip. Having evidence of something is not belief; belief is believing in something despite the fact that you do not have proof. Classic Christmas movies, most notably the timeless Miracle on 34th Street, often allow some ambiguity at the end, so that the audience can reaffirm its own belief. A movie such as The Polar Express, ostensibly about the power of belief, ought to trust more in its audience’s own desire to believe, and ought to give its audience something more profound to believe in than presents under the tree.

The Polar Express opens everywhere on Wednesday.