3 stars (out of 4)
It's hard to calibrate magic, harder still to conjure it flawlessly, especially the magic of Christmas that a child experiences. In "The Polar Express," director Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks try for that special combination of creative stardust and technological wizardry they need to bring alive Chris Van Allsburg's 1986 picture book loved by millions.
But the magic touch is just beyond their grasp, despite hundreds of millions of dollars and a new computer moviemaking process called performance capture. This movie, which aspires to be a Christmas movie classic on the "It's a Wonderful Life" level, is overwhelming, enjoyable and impressive, without being really entrancing - though no doubt it will entrance plenty of adults and children who love the book.
Van Allsburg's is a typical Christmas tale, potently distilled on the page, about a small boy, called "Hero Boy" in the film credits, who has a crisis of faith about Santa Claus.
To resolve that crisis, something wonderful happens. A huge old steam train with a lovable, balding but Tom Hanks-ian conductor (voiced and modeled by Hanks), pulls into the Boy's back yard and carries him off, in his pajamas, to the North Pole and Santa's realm. Aboard the train, the Polar Express, are a number of other nameless children passengers - a feisty Hero Girl (voiced by Nona Gaye), a nerdy Know-it-All (Eddie Deezen, from Zemeckis' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand") and a wrong-side-of-the-tracks Lonely Boy. The Express is driven full-throttle by a crusty engineer and stoker (both played by the late Michael Jeter, to whom the movie is dedicated).
The kids go through a fantastic roller-coaster ride of a journey on this Polar Express, complete with musical comedy waiters and pursuing wolves, headed for the final celebration just before Santa's sleigh departure with a gargantuan bag of gifts to a Super Bowl-level send-off by thousands of capering elves. The highlight: Santa's presentation of the first gift of Christmas - perhaps to one of the kids on the Express.
Can Hero Boy's potential disbelief withstand such an immense assault? Take a guess.
"The Polar Express" does eventually cast a spell of wonderment. And it's certainly an exciting movie - never more so than when the Express speeds through snow-mantled mountainous regions of wolves and potential avalanches on the way to the Pole, or when we catch our first sights of the amazing North Pole city, a "Metropolis" closer to Fritz Lang's than Superman's - or Santa's.
Hanks works overtime here, providing the voice for (The Boy's Father, Conductor, Hobo, Scrooge and Santa Claus) and the body motion model for six (including Hero Boy) through the digital process motion capture (designed to capture human motions for computer animation), here refined to something called performance capture. Like rotoscoping (a technique used before computers to draw over a sequence of images), performance capture enables animators to use live performances as a model, using a black suit covered by infrared sensors, and literally puts the performance inside a digital skin.
But is that really the best strategy? As with rotoscoping, something is missing here. "Polar Express'" characters tend to be a bit lifeless and stiff, not as real as the Toons in Zemeckis' great "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," or Pixar's "The Incredibles").
Of course, Van Allsburg's original illustrations, closely copied here, are somewhat stiff or painterly themselves. And "Polar Express" isn't a longish book with lots of material, like the Harry Potter tales, but a sparsely written 30-page picture book about as long as Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are"; its natural movie equivalent would have been a short. Zemeckis and his co-writer, "Cast Away's" William Broyles Jr., have thickened the story out cleverly. But it still feels padded.
Everything in "Polar Express" that truly impresses us tends to be in the spectacular backgrounds. The child characters, even Hero Boy, and the adults on the train never blossom much beyond their initial appearance; the throngs of elves sometimes unfortunately suggest the climax of 1977's "Star Wars" or "Triumph of the Will."
Zemeckis' "Roger Rabbit" and "Forrest Gump" were both, in their own ways, technological marvels. But each of them had a richer, longer, more detailed story than "Polar Express," which is faithful to its source but stretches it to the snapping point. Will children mind? I doubt it. Van Allsburg's warming, bell-clear message of Christmas faith will still ring out for them, if not (to our loss) for some of us grown-ups.
"The Polar Express"
Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Zemeckis, William Broyles Jr. based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg; photographed by Don Burgess, Robert Presley; edited by Jeremiah O'Driscoll, R. Orlando Duenas; production designed by Rick Carter, Doug Chiang; music by Alan Silvestri; original songs by Glen Ballard, Silvestri; sound design by Randy Thom; senior visual effects supervisors Ken Ralston, Jerome Chen; visual effects produced by Craig Sost; executive producers, Tom Hanks, Jack Rapke, Van Allsburg; produced by Steve Starkey, Zemeckis, Gary Goetzman, William Teitler; a Warner Bros. release of a Castle Rock Entertainment presentation; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: G.
Hero Boy/Father/Conductor/Hobo/Santa Claus - Tom Hanks
Smokey/Steamer - Michael Jeter
Hero Girl - Nona Gaye
Lonely Boy - Peter Scolari
Know-it-All - Eddie Deezen
Elf General - Charles Fleischer