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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 12.7%
Just Average: 26.98%
Pretty Crappy: 19.84%
Sucks: 12.7%

9 reviews, 72 user ratings

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Polar Express, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Like being slammed over the head with a mallet made of marzipan"
3 stars

When someone consciously sets out to make a Classic Christmas Film, the results tend to be fairly dire-manufactured whimsy and sentiment never comes off as well as the real thing. “The Polar Express” is just such a film-it wants to be the most enchanting holiday film ever made but the sheer overwhelming effort that has been expended in order to entertain is evident in every frame to such an extent that it winds up overwhelming whatever modest charms it might have had on its own. Watching it is sort of like being slammed over the head for 105 minutes with a mallet made of marzipan.

The film is based on the much-acclaimed childrens story by Chris Van Allsburg. In it, a young boy, troubled by the suggestion that there may not be a Santa Claus, is picked up on Christmas Eve by the magical title train and whisked, along with other children, to the North Pole where...well, I wouldn’t want to spoil things. Although slender in size and scope (I think it took me about all of four minutes to read), it is a sweet and charming story about the importance of faith that is the perfect thing to read to restless kids before bed and even the most cynical of people might find themselves touched by the lovely finale.

Although flawless as a Christmas fable, the relative lack of incident in the story would suggest that while it would be perfect as either a short subject or a half-hour TV special, the material might be a little too slight for the likes of a feature-length film. To compensate, director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer William Broyles Jr. have padded the material out with tons of new material-none of which adds anything to the story except for minutes to the running time. For example, one small portion of the book simply and elegantly describes how a group of waiters on the train emerge to serve the kids cocoa as rich and thick as melted chocolate. Here, the scene has been blown up into a show-stopping production number with the waiters bouncing off the walls while joyfully singing about the joys of the Polar Express. Another addition comes during an extended set-piece in which the train hurtles at top speed along railroad tracks that contain the peaks and valleys of a particularly insane roller-coaster. It is superficially entertaining for a moment or two but eventually, I became less impressed with the visuals and more curious as to why a train devoted to ferrying children would run on a track seemingly designed solely to terrify them. (Are kids so starved for distraction that even a journey to the North Pole require action sequences to hold their interest?)

Things don’t lighten up even when they arrive at the North Pole. You would think that in a movie like this, the appearance of Santa Claus would be enough to excite audiences-and if it had been told properly, it would have. Instead, Zemeckis piles on even more incidents because, you know, the mere presence of Santa just isn’t that exciting. Now, we have the kid, accompanied by a couple of pals, trapped on a runaway train car when it gets unhooked and they wind up getting trapped in Santa’s bag while hurtling through a pneumatic tube. Now we are treated to an inexplicable cameo appearance/performance by Aerosmith, a group whose closest connection to the holiday is probably the song “Toys in the Attic”. And when Santa finally does make his appearance, it is done in such an unironically overscaled way that it may well remind viewers of a certain age of certain scenes in “Triumph of the Will”-again, any genuine emotion that might have been generated by Santa’s appearance is lost amidst all of the unnecessary cacophony.

You will notice that, to this point, I have made absolutely no mention of the massive technological advances that made “The Polar Express” possible and which have been the focal point of the lion’s share of the publicity. By now, you no doubt know that the film was created by utilizing complicated computer-animation technology in a process called motion-capture; roughly, actors are filmed in a small room wearing a bodysuit with dozen of tiny cameras attached which feed the information into computers and use it to create a character that moves and acts in the very same way. (“The Lord of the Rings” used a version of this for the Gollum character.) In this case, it means that Tom Hanks is able, without the use of make-up or complicated split-screen effects, to portray the boy, his father, the train conductor, a sinister hobo and Santa Claus. (However, rumors on the web suggest that the technology didn’t quite work in the case of the children played by adults-including Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, and the immortal Eddie Deezen-and that actual kids were brought in to bring the characters a more childlike appearance.)

That said, I must say that while my dislike of “The Polar Express” is primarily based in the way that the story has been blown up, this method that Zemeckis has used to tell the story is simply repulsive. Although the human characters looks about 90% lifelike, it is that darn 10% (mostly the lifeless eyes) that winds up making them seem really creepy. As for the conceit of having Hanks play so many different roles would seem to be promising (adding to the dream-like sense of the story), it winds up playing as nothing more than a stunt that was decided on because Zemeckis realized that he could do it without ever quite coming up with a reason why he should. Compare this to the marvel of “The Incredibles”, a film which is no less of a technical achievement than “The Polar Express”, but one that is a far better film because the inspiration didn’t stop there-just as much time and effort was devoted to the story and the characters.

This is a real shame because Zemeckis is a director who has always set immense technical challenges for himself to overcome, but in the past, those challenges (the live-action/animation hybrid of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and the CGI experiments in “Death Becomes Her” and “Forrest Gump”) have always been in the service of the story, not the other way around as it seems to be here. With “The Polar Express”, he has essentially given us the most expensive gimmick movie ever made and despite the pronouncements made by both himself and Hanks about the usefulness of the technology-Hanks supposedly remarked in one interview about the potential miracle of Meryl Streep playing the role of a young black girl during the Civil Rights era and Zemeckis has suggested that it will make shooting films with child characters easier because it eliminated the need for those pesky child actors (you know, like his “Contact” star Jodie Foster)-I suspect that while the process may have its uses in special-effects movies to breathe life into strange creatures, the applications they suggest will come to fruition right about the time that someone gives the greenlight to “Final Fantasy 2”.

When Zemeckis allows things to relax, he does come up with the occasional momentary pleasure-there is a nice image of caribou blocking the train track and I love the bit when the train finally arrives at the North Pole and all the kids can think about is asking where all the elves are-and not even he can completely spoil the power of the ending. Moments like these suggest what “The Polar Express” might have been like if it hadn’t been “improved” in such a ham-fisted manner. Little kids might enjoy because it is bright and colorful, but I sense that they might enjoy a reading of the book a lot more. For older viewers, there really isn’t that much to keep them interested and I suspect that if they wind up putting it on year after year, it will be with more of a sense of resignation than genuine excitement.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10918&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/21/04 23:58:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Chicago Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell good christmas movie 4 stars
12/16/11 Liz Nice story, extremely creepy animation 2 stars
12/23/09 Shawn This film sucks. You need to be on acid to to make sense of it. 1 stars
12/13/09 RLan A good christmas movie. Best viewed by families. 4 stars
12/04/09 RK Yes, it's a little weird...but also very good. Love the 3 kids, esp the girl. 4 stars
1/22/09 Seinfeld Lover Yet ANOTHER great book ruined when it became a movie 1 stars
1/14/09 Anonymous. not many, if any, animated movies are like this one. 4 stars
9/16/08 Chad An absolutely perfect animated film, my all time favorite animated movie 5 stars
9/02/08 Shaun Wallner Great Kids Film! 5 stars
5/30/07 ES Zzzzz 2 stars
3/26/07 kathy underheart childress' review made be blow chunks. Yeah, the 'holiday classic' noone bothers with today 1 stars
12/28/06 David Cohen Eddie Deezan and wooden facial expressions bring down a potential classic 3 stars
12/24/06 dk Soulless but entertaining. 4 stars
12/02/06 Tangelo Soosepot Evokes winter. Takes the X out of X-mas and inserts creepy Santa. 2 stars
12/02/06 Mary Ruined not only a great book but the SPIRIT of Christmas too. 1 stars
12/01/06 M. Wolff An ugly, dead thing. This mushy horror could kill Christmas. 1 stars
9/28/06 Big Fan Best X-mas movie on the planet 5 stars
7/11/06 ian afford good to watch at xmas with the kids in booze fueled coma 3 stars
1/03/06 jeffrey blake great film,an animated feature that adults can enjoy 5 stars
12/15/05 Quigley the glacier gulch scene is worth $9. the movie is both stunning and occasionally emotional. 5 stars
12/15/05 Eden Soulless and empty, with creepy children 1 stars
12/13/05 Ginger I hated it! They took the book and RUINED it as a movie! It sucked!!! 1 stars
12/08/05 Phil M. Aficionado Stunning visually, but limp emotionally; and what is the point, exactlly? I missed it. 3 stars
12/07/05 someone special it sucked 1 stars
11/28/05 Melissa AWESOME!!! 5 stars
11/25/05 Thomas webb Great chistmas classic - Best in IMAX... 5 stars
11/23/05 Evil Wolfie I usually hate Christmas movies, but this was actually good. Go figure....... 4 stars
9/26/05 rafi not much of an adult movie , but still very nice.. 4 stars
9/21/05 Jonathon Holmes good movie, but not as good as "The Incredibles" 4 stars
7/04/05 mariann This is a must-see in 3D, at the IMAX theatres! Incredible and charming! 5 stars
6/06/05 Helen Bradley Very clever fast script Hanks awesome 5 stars
4/23/05 Quigley the glacier culch sequence is worth $9. could've been more emotional, but still a classic 5 stars
1/29/05 Frank Tells good movie 3 stars
1/29/05 Lisa Clarizio Creepy animation for christmas 2 stars
1/27/05 Jeff Anderson The greatest family holiday movie of ALL TIME! See it right away. A MUST SEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
1/07/05 shane brown held on to my seat train was faster than a roller coaster 5 stars
1/05/05 Scott Smith Awesome! An instant classic on a grand scale. 5 stars
12/28/04 Bill Masengarb Will become a Christmas classic. 5 stars
12/28/04 Natalie Stonecipher Falls pretty flat, even for lovers of train journeys and Santa Claus story. 2&1/2 stars. 3 stars
12/26/04 cindy parry Wonderful! saw it 3 times! 5 stars
12/17/04 Theresa Wagner great retelling of the book, nicely crafted 4 stars
12/12/04 Donna Cole Magical 5 stars
12/11/04 Michael Baldaccini This Movie is great Family fun. My kids love it! 5 stars
12/08/04 James Culp Great !Cartoon greatest effort in 70yr 5 stars
12/07/04 Michael AWESOME. SEE IT AT THE IMAX THEATER IN 3-D 5 stars
12/05/04 Mark D Fulwiler Disappointing 3 stars
12/02/04 Pau-red Didn't have an issue with the eyes, did you actually watch the movie or just the preview? 5 stars
12/02/04 Santa Makes "Gremlins" look like a classic !!! Bring back Gizmo and Stripe !!! 3 stars
11/30/04 Annie Best Christmas movie since Its a Wonderful Life 5 stars
11/27/04 chris. am i the only person who wasn't horrified by half of this movie?? 3 stars
11/26/04 Linda Jow Need to see it in IMAX 3-D, all t classes of 1st grader in our school loved it! 4 stars
11/22/04 alien assassin Great CGI...shame about the story 3 stars
11/22/04 Kristina Williams The eyes are too....damn...CREEPY!! 1 stars
11/20/04 Naka Nope! 1 stars
11/19/04 Melissa in New York WAY TOO EARLY FOR X-MAS! Drag a friend with you, make snide comments through the movie. 2 stars
11/18/04 Phillip Their eyes..............(shudder) 2 stars
11/18/04 egonz67328@aol.com Awesome! 5 stars
11/18/04 Atom All positive movie. Great. Nothing like the rest of the movies made today. 5 stars
11/16/04 Joesph Markshaft Its really crap the animation was worse than FF Spirits within 1 stars
11/16/04 Cool Leather Jacket bored out of my mind....zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz 1 stars
11/15/04 Dunce a slap in the face to *real* animation. ugly, ugly, ugly! 1 stars
11/15/04 April I would rather be shot (and quartered)than have to see this movie again 1 stars
11/15/04 rhody polished turd! 1 stars
11/13/04 Danny 3D version is revolutionary, a different movie 5 stars
11/13/04 Nadia I didn't like it. Could it be because I don't believe? Oh no! 2 stars
11/11/04 Kelly Amazing! Take a ride and believe and laugh and have a blast! best time in a long time! 5 stars
11/11/04 Scott Carter Rotten and only for kids under 3 1 stars
11/11/04 Drew Cosbie GREAT FAMILY FILM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
11/10/04 ted pakozdi incredible 5 stars
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  10-Nov-2004 (G)
  DVD: 22-Nov-2005



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