Stars: *** 1/2
Rating: G but could be PG for intense action sequences
Run Time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
I was dismayed when I learned that my favorite children’s book – a quiet and dark rumination on lost innocence – was being adapted into a big-screen action adventure.
The story of a young boy growing wary of his childish belief in Santa Claus is a universal one. In the hands of artist/author Chris Van Allsburg it was shaded with a poignant sensibility and dusky eeriness. Much to my surprise director Robert Zemeckis has taken Van Allsburg’s vision a step further, combining peerless technology and a minimalist screenplay for a charming meditation on the inherent cynicism of growing old.
When our unnamed hero wakes on Christmas Eve to the sound of a rumbling train parked on his snowy lawn he thinks he’s dreaming. The conductor (voice and image of Tom Hanks) encourages him to climb aboard the Polar Express, headed for the North Pole.
Along the way Hero Boy and a select group of enchanted, pajama-clad children encounter subtle lessons in trust and courage a la a contemporary fantasy of feisty spirits, collective struggles, and a kinetic journey to witness the Man, his reindeer and the infamous elves.
That journey is action-packed with a Capital A. Hair-raising train tracks that dip down impossibly steep grades like the loopiest roller coaster and a frozen lake that splinters with frightening ferocity as it pursues the runaway locomotive.
The digital animation, known as “performance capture”, is state-of-the-art and unearthly; live actors filmed with a myriad of motion detectors attached their bodies computerized to the nines to resemble progressive human movement.
At least two of Polar’s scenes are breakout classics; one an unassuming instant in which the conductor punches a young passenger’s train ticket while pesky bits of chad fly into noses and mouths (you had to be there) and the other a mesmerizing long-shot following an errant ticket as it floats through the barren arctic wilderness, touching a nerve both exhilarating and frightening.
Left to its basic equation Polar would be simply spectacular. But with eyes on the prize (box-office!) Zemeckis and company are encouraged to flesh out the magic with a couple of dopey musical numbers that interrupt, albeit briefly, the flowing dreamscape.
Bottom line, Polar Express retains its unique character while maintaining a mainstream appeal for families who will render it a holiday hit. Its message is clear and dear: the spirit of Christmas lives in your heart. Color me a believer.