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The Polar Express

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Polar Express

Starring: Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Rated: G
RunTime: 100 Minutes
Release Date: November 2004
Genres: Animation, Kids, Family, Christmas

*Also starring: Andrew Ableson, Debbie Lee Carrington, Jimmy Pinchak, Eddie Deezen, Josh Hutcherson, Chantel Valdivieso, Michael Jeter, Hayden McFarland, Peter Scolari

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Review by Harvey Karten
4 stars out of 4

Childhood is a magic time. Between the ages of 2 and, oh about 10, children see and hear and believe things that older folks cannot. Despite the improbability of one overweight, elderly man's delivering presents to six billion people between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. on Christmas day even with the help of a team of loyal and fast-moving reindeer kids believe in Santa Claus as much as they give credence to the existence of Wendy and Pinocchio. If they see monsters under their bed occasionally, that problem is more than compensated for since children, unless abused or poverty-stricken, are living through the most mystical time of their lives. To take Santa away from them would be akin to committing emotional abuse.

So it is that little eight-year-old Hero Boy closes his eyes on Christmas Eve, perhaps hoping to catch Santa in the act of sliding down the chimney of his suburban home. He pretends to be asleep when his parents check him out, and just as he is dropping off for real, he is awakened by a clatter that makes the house shake as though in the center of an earthquake. Just outside the window is The Polar Express, a train circa 1930 with a big, beaming light in the front and a conductor who suggests that he get on for a trip to the North Pole. Without parental permission, he jumps right on, makes friends with a diverse assortment of kids near his own age, and in less time that it would take the late great Concorde to reach the top of the world, he's there. They say the moving toward a destination is itself the principal purpose of adventurous travel, but in Hero Boy's case, he gets not only what is literally a roller-coaster ride (which some critics will undoubtedly call the whole movie in their quotes) but a smashing, amazing, wondrous terminal where he gets to meet a towering Santa while gazing at a pile of presents that would easily take care of all the young ones living in Hoboken.

If "The Polar Express" were a conventionally-made movie, it would probably be at the top of any Academy list for awards. What is truly a "trip," though, is that the picture, directed brilliantly by Robert Zemeckis, is animated, but animated in a special way never before used in a complete, feature-length film a major cinematic breakthrough that should impact films of this nature for years to come. As we watch the realistic shapes of human beings that move swiftly across the screen, we're seeing not the actual performers but set of computer-generated images that open up the small book by Chris Van Allsburg into three-dimensional images. There are real actors, though, who go through the motions without a backdrop of setting, each wearing up to 150 "jewels" which are picked up by the computers and transformed by hundreds of specialists into three-dimensional figures, each of which bearing the actual facial expressions and body language of the live performers.

But without a great adventure, such inventiveness might pall were it night that "The Polar Express" itself zooms and lurches, picking up children along the way including one poor and Lonely Boy who comes literally on the wrong side and insists that "Christmas doesn't work for me." He isolates himself from the others, but when coaxed by Hero Boy and the Boy's new friend Hero Girl, he joins them: the new friendship becomes the greatest Christmas present he'd ever had. The trip to the North Pole and its aftermath features Tom Hanks in (count 'em) five roles as the voices of the Hero Boy, the Boy's Father, the Conductor, the Hobo, even the towering Santa. Peter Scolari turns in an appropriately sad sack voice for Lonely Boy with Nona Gaye as the eight-year-old girl who has a knack for introducing shy people to the rest of the gang. The geek is represented by the voice of Eddie Deezen as the bespectacled Know-It-All Boy.

The digital cast includes literally thousands of elves who dance and cheer the arrival of Santa while the compositions of photographers Don Burgess and Robert Presley decorate the mise-en-scene with light and shade, all giving the entire production a Norman Rockwell look a simpler time where war, racism and poverty hardly exist. The soundtrack booms with a theme that sounds strangely like the principal song from Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, and there is at least one song which is an absolute delight. Note especially the show-stopping number toward the beginning of the story in which the avuncular train master, who is particularly skilled at punching personal messages into the tickets of the passengers, asks whether refreshments are in order. Getting a unanimous vote for same, he sends out a crew of tuxedo-clad waiters who bounce about the car turning somersaults and handing out cups of steaming hot chocolate with aplomb.

While "The Polar Express" is obviously on the short list for at least one Oscar for Best Animated Feature, the best is yet to come as the entire movie will be re-released some time after the November 10th opening day in 3-D and projected in IMAX theaters.

Copyright 2004 Harvey Karten

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