Based on Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrated children’s book, Robert Zemekis’ The Polar Express (2004) is a rather maudlin, somewhat simple-minded and not terribly engaging animated movie that gets blown out of proportion almost from the moment its hero boards that wondrous vintage locomotive en route to the North Pole.
Obviously geared toward a younger crowd, the film offers some rather stunning visual sequences that pay homage to Allsburg’s book, then garishly stretches its thimble of a plot to an excruciating ‘ho-hum’ length.
Hero Boy (voiced by Tom Hanks), lies in bed on Christmas Eve, desperately hoping that he has not lost his ability to anticipate the arrival of Santa Claus.
However, as the hours pass, he grows more skeptical about the actual existence of that fat jolly fellow in the red suit…that is, until the thunderous clatter of a roaring train echoes from outside his window. Boarding the curious ‘ghost train’ – the boy is confronted by a rather stoic conductor (also voiced by Hanks), who ushers him into a travel car full of other pajama clad girls and boys en route to the North Pole.
Hero Boy meets Hero Girl (Nona Gaye) and Lonely Boy (Peter Scolari) – his solitary companions on a journey that becomes more curious by the minute. The children are served hot chocolate by a bevy of dancing waiters. But then, the narrative becomes flawed. Hero Boy almost loses Hero Girl’s magic ticket to ride. There is a laborious chase sequence atop the roof of the train to retrieve this ticket, where Hero Boy meets a hobo ghost (also voiced by Hanks), who is more spooky than sympathetic to the young child’s loss.
After some heart pounding 3-D visuals that almost derail the train across a crackling tundra of ice, the children arrive at the North Pole – looking more like a Macy’s window display of some fanciful resort metropolis than the timeless hideaway of Santa Claus. They meet the jolly man in red and Hero Boy is rewarded with the gift of a sleigh bell from Santa’s famed sled as proof that the journey was not merely a dream.
The simple message imbedded in the film is that everyone – man, woman and child – need something to believe in; a message more magically and timelessly explored in the original Miracle on 34th Street (1947) than on this computer-generated outing. The graphics in this frenetic visual feast lack the weight and conviction of traditional animation and, quite frankly, are unconvincing to anyone beyond the age of three.
There’s some style here, but generally no substance. Zemeckis may think he’s offering his audience a new and revisionist take on the North Pole, but in truth there’s very little that is refreshing about either the concept or design of these visuals. Zemeckis inserts spectacular 3-D shots throughout the story, but the effect grows tiresome about 30 minutes into the film, when Hero Boy climbs atop the speeding locomotive to retrieve Hero Girl’s train ticket. In the final analysis, The Polar Express is a film as mindless as it is tragically absent of that elusive magical quality to make even the youngest member of its audience believe.
Warner Home Video’s DVD delivers a fairly impressive anamorphic widescreen visual presentation. Colors are rich and eye-popping. Contrast levels are bang on with deep solid blacks and very clean whites. The cold blue palette of winter is tangible, as is the warmth of that cozy central square of the North Pole bathed in reds and oranges. At times, the three-dimensional animation does indeed almost appear to pop out of the screen.
A minor hint of edge enhancement crops up on detail in the roof tops and railroad tracks. On the whole, however, this image quality will surely not disappoint. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers an aggressive sonic spread across all five channels. There’s intensity to the sound field that may frighten some younger viewers. There are NO extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)