Polar Express, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/02/04 02:42:25

"The coal fumes are making me sleepy..."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

There’s something off about Robert Zemeckis’ CGI cartoon “The Polar Express.” Not just the eerily robotic-ness of the character animation, and not just the strange lack of amazement involving the film’s North Pole scenes, and not just the horrible musical numbers. The problem is bigger than these. You see, it’s a film that works in pieces, but pasted together, it refuses to hold.

The film, adapted from the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, follows the adventures of an boy (we never learn his name) who’s at the age where he’s starting to doubt the existence of one Mr. S. Claus. That’s when a magical train pulls up outside his house on Christmas Eve, inviting him on board the journey north. What follows is an uneven series of episodes, as the boy discovers a mysterious hobo, helps save the train from crashing, sneaks off to explore Santa’s city, etc., etc.

Things get off to a decent start. There’s just the right sense of holiday wonder in the air. Watch for that long, glorious sequence in which we follow a lost ticket as it flies and flurries across the landscape. And the curious casting of Tom Hanks in six different roles (all of which were digitally “captured” with Hanks performing the actual movements, and many of which share Hanks’ facial features) adds a dreamlike quality to the tale; people come and go, but they’re all kinda the same in this fantasy. With all of this, it’s easy to get involved with the characters and their doings. Really, what’s not to like about a stowaway hobo who might be a ghost, or the lonely poor kid who needs a little friendship to help restore his faith in Christmas, or the kindly conductor who knows all? Everything zips along at a brisk pace, keeping the energy level high and the action plowing ahead, especially with all those scenes of the train barreling down a mountainside at top speed.

But then, it starts to sink in. What are all these action scenes doing in a quaint holiday movie? This film deserves a quiet sense of charm, not full-volume antics and breakneck suspense. When did this become “Jingle All the Way?”

With that thought now firmly in mind, it’s easier to locate the flaws - most notably, the terrible, terrible, terrible musical numbers. A dandy Tom Hanks-performed jazz bit aside, the tunes here all grate. It’s mostly generic Christmas fluff, co-written by pop schlocker Glenn Ballard (Dianne Warren was unavailable, I suppose), with the two worst songs saved for the end: a dopey faux-swing jam sung by Steven Tyler (whom we see in CGI elf form, a disturbing sight that’s not too easy to shake from memory), and a closing credits item performed by Josh Groban and written entirely with Oscar voters in mind. We also have chances for the kids to stop and sing, each song slamming the story to a halt and forces bland cuteness down our throats.

When we finally arrive at the North Pole, we learn that this is a movie that’s all build up, no pay off. Santa’s city is mostly absent in magic; there’s no time spent on the sense of awe given to this supposedly wondrous place. (It’s Santa’s Workshop, and the filmmakers just take the fantasy for granted.) And then, worse yet, all the set-ups fail to work through. The hobo ghost is never explained. A bit about how gifts must not be opened before Christmas becomes useless when we find out one kid opened his - and nothing happens. And the main character’s concerns about believing in Santa? Well, for some reason, he’s still not sure he believes... even though he just rode a magical train to a hidden city at the top of the world, where he finds thousands of Christmas elves. If that doesn’t make you believe, what will? What’s supposed to be a curious study of the power of faith instead becomes a stumbling block for logic.

With “The Polar Express,” Zemeckis had a chance to do something truly wonderful. Instead, he slaps together something depressingly mediocre, and not even the few very good scenes sprinkled throughout can save it. This is a film that assumes it’s bound to be a family favorite but never actually works to earn it - a patchwork of sequences that just don’t fit together. The viewer walks away knowing he’s experienced something Christmasy, but never won over by the holiday spirit. The best holiday movies fill our hearts and make us believe. “The Polar Express” just makes us shrug.

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