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THE POLAR EXPRESS
U.S. Release Date: November 10, 2004
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Producer: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks (executive)
Composer: Alan Silvestri
Cast: Tom Hanks (Voice), Josh Hutcherson (Voice)
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: G

Ticket to Ride
by Scott Holleran

Like Santa Claus himself, writer and director Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express is an enchanted Christmas fantasy. Based on the children's storybook by Chris Van Allsburg (who also wrote the book Jumanji), Mr. Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away) presents Christmastime with a blend of impressionism and realism.

Beginning with one boy's Christmas Eve, the steam engine-driven Polar Express roars into the child's front yard at five minutes before midnight. The mustached conductor (Tom Hanks) encourages the boy (moved by Hanks, voiced by Daryl Sabara), who doubts the existence of Santa Claus, to board with the invitation: "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on."

Among the boy's fellow travelers are a kind, smart girl (Nona Gaye), a sad, lonely boy (moved by Hanks' Bosom Buddies co-star Peter Scolari, voiced by Jimmy Bennett) and an overzealous child (Eddie Deezen) whose irritating habits would make Santa want to break out the duct tape. Each character has something to learn and, with the Polar Express as a locomotive version of the Yellow Brick Road, the children are on the way to a Christmas they will never forget. Riding the rails in cozy comfort, the kids are entertained by a band of song and dance waiters and several fantastic adventures.

When a lost ticket escapes the boy's hand between rail cars and dances through the cold winter wonderland, Mr. Zemeckis' recurring theme of fatalistic optimism (a la the Forrest Gump feather) is delightfully rendered, though it does nothing to advance the plot. The train takes too long to reach its destination, but when it stops, Mr. Zemeckis unleashes a late 19th century Christmas which is the opposite of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, depicting the Industrial Revolution as clean and inviting, with work as glowing and joyful, not grimy and grinding. It's the warmest stylization of the North Pole since Rankin and Bass created Rudolph's Christmastown. From serving hot chocolate while tap dancing to wrapping toys with pride, The Polar Express celebrates commercialism without shame.

The Polar Express is not always a smooth operation. A couple of doltish engineers are distracting, a hobo's ghost (Hanks, again) lacks purpose and there are inconsistencies in the railroad's reality/fantasy rules, such as why the conductor walks on top of the roof while the train's moving at what looks like 120 miles per hour. Much of the journey is too dark, especially for small children; Glen Ballard's and Alan Silvestri's melodies, coupled with scratchy old songs by Mario Lanza, the Andrews Sisters and Irving Berlin, give the movie its much-needed Christmas cheer.

The dreamlike picture is not meant to be taken literally. Making use of the latest in computer-generated animation technology—performance capture—The Polar Express chugs happily along. Any new technology takes getting used to, but the motion sensor approach, created by visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston, with whom Mr. Zemeckis worked on the brilliant Back to the Future series, enhances the sense of a third dimension. Both the Polar Express and its passengers and crew were realistic enough to these believing eyes, which admittedly start to see brand-new Matchbox fire trucks under the tree this time of year.

With a theme that youth in general, and Christmas in particular, requires belief in something, Mr. Zemeckis, with co-writer William Broyles, Jr. (Apollo 13, Unfaithful) keeps the scope broad enough to escape a full-fledged faith-based fantasy. The Polar Express is a twinkling round-trip ticket to a jolly Christmas.

Buy on DVD
DVD Notes
Besides the usual trailer, foreign languages and subtitles (French and Spanish), the double disc DVD package for The Polar Express puffs enough steam off its engine to satisfy fans of the movie. Typical behind-the-scenes bits will appeal to diehards yearning to know more about the picture's unique performance capture technology. But be forewarned: dissecting details of what you've just seen—or are about to see—is not for everyone and the obnoxious kid in the movie does the behind-the-scenes voiceover (with a girl character's digitized chirp) and it might grate on the nerves.

The best featurette—a bundle of packaged pieces are generally presented in snippets—is an all-too-brief sketch of children's writer and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, True Inspirations: An Author's Adventure: Profiling Chris Van Allsburg, who wrote The Polar Express a story that millions of parents read to their children this time every year. The Michigan native talks about growing up in Grand Rapids and being intimidated by other artists in school.

Given the picture's strong visuals—particularly for those who have read the book—the Van Allsburg profile makes for a natural introduction (or, for the impatient child, postscript) to the movie, at least for those looking for a logical flow to the material, since these DVD special features can be overwhelming if watched in the product's fragmented sequencing. Disc Two's other magical Christmas teasers include Meet the Snow Angels: The Moviemakers' Christmas Memories and a pleasant performance of the Oscar-nominated song "Believe" at L.A.'s Greek Theatre by Josh Groban, who spontaneously tosses off a cheerful "merry Christmas!" before leaving the stage.


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