MRR Movie Review: The Polar Express

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On Christmas Eve, a doubting boy boards a magical train that's headed to the North Pole and Santa Claus's home.
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Movie Review: "The Polar Express"

-- Rating: PG
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 10, 2004
Directed By: Robert Zemeckis
Genre: Family, Adventure, Animated

"The Polar Express" is one of the most popular holiday books of recent years, and director Robert Zemeckis decided to turn that story into a film using a unique filming technique. Using computer-animation and CGI, the film relies on performances from real actors, which the director then turned into 3D models.

The film tells the story of a young boy, credited as DJ Walters/Young Hero, who is at that magical age where he starts wondering if Santa Claus is real. DJ (Josh Hutcherson, "The Hunger Games") reads as much as he can about the topic, secretly hoping that he can prove the man's existence. When he ventures outside, he discovers The Polar Express passing by his house, and the Conductor (Tom Hanks. "Forrest Gump") offers him a ride to the North Pole.

While on the train, the young boy meets a variety of other characters, including other children picked to ride the train. After tickets for the train magically appear on each child, they ride around the world until they reach the North Pole. Though he enjoys his experience, DJ decides that he must take home proof of its existence, which leads to a touching moment at the end of the film.

"The Polar Express" is one of those rare films that relies heavily on its source material. From the opening scene to the last moment, nearly everything that occurs onscreen is something that occurred in the book. The film even opens in the same way, quoting the opening line of the book, "On Christmas Eve, many years ago, I lay quietly in my bed." Fans of the book will find themselves satisfied with the story.

While the story is strong, the acting is sometimes a little off-putting. Zemeckis used a new technology for the time, called performance capture. Actors worked against a blue screen, making the movements and actions of their characters. The director then turned those actions into computer animation, which gives everyone a slightly waxy appearance. This leads to a film that isn't quite real but isn't quite animated either, which might be distracting for some viewers.

Zemeckis also relies heavily on Hanks throughout the film. Though Hutcherson performed the motion capture for the film, it's actually Hanks in the speaking role. Tom Hanks also provides the voices of the Conductor, Father, Santa Claus, Scrooge, and the Hobo who DJ meets on the top of the train. Though Hanks is a strong actor, his multiple roles are sometimes confusing. He attempts different voices and accents for each role, but some of the voices sound a little too similar.

"The Polar Express" has a lot of fast-paced action that helps the story roll along. Much of the action comes when DJ climbs onto the roof of the train to help rescue a young girl. The girl's ticket mysteriously disappeared, and he hopes to save her before the Conductor throws her over the side. The train crashes down hills, rushes through narrow tunnels, and tosses the characters around. These scenes will have kids and adults alike holding their breath until the train finally stops.

The film also features some darker scenes that while found in the book, somehow seem a little too dark onscreen. Waiters suddenly come out of nowhere to treat the children with hot chocolate before bursting into song, contorting their bodies into unusual shapes. The scene is quite jarring, and it might take some viewers out of the film. The North Pole scenes are equally dark, showing the elves with bold and angular faces. When the camera slowly moves across the workshop, viewers will see that each elf looks almost exactly the same, which is a chilling moment in the film. Thankfully, Zemeckis later shows Santa in a positive light, helping the children and acting like the jolly man that most people imagine.

The main reason why "The Polar Express" is so successful is that it tells the classic story found in the book, but it brings those scenes to the next level. The book features a number of beautiful scenes and illustrations, and the film strives to show a realistic interpretation of those scenes. When the train ticket slowly floats through the air before an eagle snatches it away, fans of the book will remember just how that scene looked on the page.

Even those who never read the book will find something charming and whimsical about "The Polar Express." While the animation is sometimes difficult to watch, the classic story and gorgeous scenes will delight lovers of holiday films.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars