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Running Time:
1 hour, 40 minutes

Rating: G General Audiences.

Jimmy's Buzz Guide Review:
Not exciting enough for kids, nor charming enough for adults, just notable for its technical achievement.

Additional Info:
DVD Features: Theatrical trailer; Languages & subtitles: English, Français (dubbed in Quebec) & Español (feature film only); Never-before-seen Smokey and Steamer song You Look Familiar: The Many "Polar Faces" of Tom Hanks; A Genuine Ticket to Ride featurette; True Inspirations: An Author's Adventure - profiling Chris Van Allsburg; Believe: Josh Groban performs at the Greek Theatre; Behind the Scenes of Believe - bringing a hit song to magical life in the recording studio; Polar Express Challenge; Meet the Snow Angels: The moviemakers' Christmas memories; THQ PC game demo; DVD-ROM weblink to the online world of The Polar.

The Polar Express
While not nearly as offensive as "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," what was a charming, deeply satisfying book by Caldecott-winning author Chris Van Allsburg, (it was 29 pages long, 26 of which are illustrations) has been inflated into a ponderous and charmless movie. On Christmas Eve an eight year old boy lies in bed listen for the bells of Santa Claus, but hears a steam locomotive instead, and it's pulling up right outside his house. He's coaxed aboard by a charmless conductor where he joins a bunch of equally charmless children, also in pajamas, and they head off to the North Pole. Someone's going to be chosen to receive a special gift from Santa. Guess who gets it. Padded with nothing but hot air and steam, Robert Zemeckis' film version is only interesting for its technical achievement. Everyone has become familiar with computer animation, like Shrek, but this film is aiming for photo realism in its depiction of humans.

Tom Hanks (as the train's conductor) has enacted all the human roles. The performances were digitally recorded and fed into a computer to be “painted” by effects artists. But the results are a letdown. These figures still look like computer-animated characters with dead eyes and almost grotesque features. Far from charming, they're actually kind of creepy. Maybe on a home TV screen they will be acceptable, but in big close-ups on giant movie screens, all of the flaws are magnified.

Van Allsburg's gentle little story has been tricked up with numerous newly invented digressions. There's an obnoxious know-it-all kid (Eddie Deezen) and an empathetic girl (Nona Gaye) who with our young hero befriends a sad, lonely waif from the poor side of town (Peter Scolari). A hobo (Hanks again) rides atop the train dispenseing cryptic comments for little entertainment value. Only a troupe of dancing waiters and chefs who look like they've been left over from a road company production of “Hello, Dolly!” bring a momentary explosion of fun in their acrobatic musical number serving hot chocolate to the children in the railroad car. Whenever they can't think of anything else to do, the filmmakers turn the movie into a roller coaster ride, with runaway railway cars speeding down tracks or careening across a frozen glacier, children zipping through chutes that take them ever deeper into the heart of Santa's North Pole city (which is the largest and ugliest high rise 19th Century city you've ever seen, peopled with fifty thousand elves in red suits and Santa hats).

The one level on which the film excels is in some of the computer-generated interiors and landscapes. They feel much more substantial than the people that inhabit them The artists have done particularly fine work creating realistic lighting effects. The scene of the train pulling down the suburban street in a cloud of steam amid falling snow, is quite haunting. And there are other visual moments which have been lifted directly from Van Allsburg's illustrations which are also memorable, particularly the pack of wolves racing the train through a wintry forest and the eerie landscape in which the Express races up a mountain on spiraling tracks. Some of this is temporarily diverting, but there's no getting around the film's essential emptiness. The book was about faith. The movie is about trying to fill a full length feature's running time.

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