The Polar Express (2004) / Animation-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences (I'd rate it PG)
Running Time: 99 min.
Cast (voices): Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara, Leslie Zemeckis, Nona Gaye, Eddie Deezen, Peter Scolari, Jimmy Bennett
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis, William Broyles Jr. (based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg)
Review published December 11, 2005
Splendidly rendered, The Polar Express is an often beautiful looking and sounding film experience that makes up for its familiar storyline, adapted from the illustrated story by Chris Van Allsburg, with fantastic special effects, good scoring, and a friendly voice in Tom Hanks (The Terminal, The Ladykillers), who also lends his image as the mysterious train conductor. Although a story about Christmas, the gist of the tale is very reminiscent to other children whisked away into a dangerous land where the rules seem scary but wonderful, like The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Time will tell whether The Polar Express becomes a perennial Christmastime family film for future generations, but for today, it does deliver a sense of mystery and wonder to make it something to visit at least once during the Holiday season.
A boy that is beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve is astonished to find a large locomotive stop in front of his house claiming to be on its way to the North Pole. The inquisitive boy hops on to find out for himself, finding that the trip is magical, scary, surreal, and exhilarating. He soon bonds with the other children on board, each with their own stories and reasons they want to see what awaits at the end of their journey.
To be honest with readers out there, while I'm giving The Polar Express a generously favorable rating, the reasons are mostly because of the feeling and experience of watching it, rather than due to it being an engaging story in and of itself. Van Allsburg's narrative is fine for what it is, although a typical, if obnoxiously overbearing, Christmas story. However, anyone that tells you that The Polar Express's main assets don't derive from the sight and sound aspects is being disingenuous. There is a coldness and aloofness to the story that is a bit unsettling, like the aforementioned Willy Wonka, with a dark undercurrent that may keep it from being readily embraced by most viewers. Still, there are many moments where the cinematics of the movie becomes fascinating, with rich visual details and a fantastic score that are sometimes breathtaking to experience.
The Polar Express is a worthwhile view, although this is one of those films that probably stands up better when watching it on a big screen with quality surround sound rather than a small monaural television set. If you can find an adequate way to see it in all its glory, and you can stomach the stickiness of typical Christmas schmaltz, you should be rewarded by one of the more inventive and visually captivating holiday films made in many a year.
©2005 Vince Leo