November 24, 2004

Movie Review: The Polar Express

The trailers started popping up for this months ago, heralding the arrival of a potential holiday classic. Now that the film is out, I think that the word "potential" can be dropped. This is destined to be a film that pops up year after year on people's lists for holiday viewing. It is not perfect by any stretch, but it is a wonderful fantasy for the whole family. It is nice to see a film that is as magical as it is spellbinding.

A simple tale by Chris Van Allsburg has been translated to the screen by screenwriter/director Robert Zemeckis. He took the short story and stretched it out to fill a 90 minute film, and does a fine job of it. I admit, I am not terribly familiar with the story of The Polar Express, I have flipped through the book, but I couldn't tell you what it was about. I can tell you that it has some wonderful illustrations, and those images have been translated beautifully to the screen.

The film tells the tale of a young boy, who is not given a name, who is at that age where he begins to question the existence of Santa Claus. That Christmas Eve, a large train pulls up to a stop in front of his home. The boy goes out to investigate, and comes face to face with the Conductor, who informs him that he is to be a passenger on a trip to the North Pole. Of course the boy is a little wary, curiosity wins out and he is off on an adventure of a lifetime.

The trip to the Pole fills the bulk of the film. Taking us on a roller coaster ride, quite literally, and more adventure than you would have thought possible for a train ride. From the peaks and valleys they climb, to the frozen over tracks, to skiing down the roof of the train with a mysterious hobo. Friends are made, obstacles crossed, and lessons learned on a journey where time seems to have slowed to a crawl. And we cannot forget the train's destination. Once arriving at the North Pole, the friends leave the group and find themselves in another race.

I don't really want to go on describing the plot, there is so much here to be discovered upon watching it that I don't wish to give it all away. I will comment on some other aspects though. For one, the look of the film is spectacular. It looks as if the pictures from the book have leapt off the page into full motion. This leads to the animation style, this is possibly the most realistic of the computer animated films yet produced, still couldn't be confused with the real thing, but seemingly real none the less. The characters were animated with a new form of motion capture, where they actually film the actors going through the motions and then map them into the film. The animation is fluid, almost to a fault, the move almost too smooth, it is hard to replicate real movements. It all combines to give a very real look, that is just slightly off increasing the fantasy feel of the film.

I guess I should comment on the few quibbles I had with it. One was the scene, which is briefly shown in the trailer, with the dancing and singing waiters on the train. I'm not sure what it was, but it just felt out of place with the film. The other is towards the end, and I hesitate to say what it was, except to say it is an animated cameo which felt tacked in for no particularly good reason.

Back to the good, Tom Hanks helps to bring the movie to life, voicing a number of the roles including the key role of the Conductor. His star power and acting ability give credibility to the project and is put to great use. The rest of the voice acting is excellent as well, each breathing life into their animated counterparts and taking us on a wonderful journey.

Bottomline. This is a classic in the making, a wonderful tale of hope and optimism wrapped up in a fantasy tale that is exciting on it's own. This is one the whole family can enjoy.

Highly Recommended.


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