- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

Movies on the fast track to Flop Town don’t make unexpected stops. Tell that to “The Polar Express,” the new CGI feature starring Tom Hanks in five “roles,” courtesy of motion-capture technology.

The lavishly illustrated film drew $23.3 million in its first weekend last month.

That wouldn’t be bad for most movies, but when a film’s price tag is a gaudy $165 million, you better have an opening weekend to remember.

Critics ganged up on “Express,” too, calling its animated humans soulless for the otherworldly look in their eyes.

“The Incredibles,” another CGI affair but one blessed with universally strong notices, rubbed “Express’” nose in its failure by rocketing out of the gate.

But then, a miracle not unlike the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes larger occurred. “The Polar Express” found its legs.

The feature grossed about $20 million for the four day Thanksgiving weekend alone (which the studio says is a 28 percent increase over the preceding weekend) and an additional $11 million in this past weekend’s box office tally. Final figures will be released later today.

That’s a staggering number given that nearly all features usually fall by that amount — or much greater — from week to week.

As of this week, the film has made an estimated $96.3 million and could strengthen as Dec. 25 draws near.

The lessons here are worth noting.

One, even in an age of films living and dying by their opening weekend figures, word of mouth still has its say.

This summer’s quasi-hit “Van Helsing” drew massive crowds in its first few days, but we’ll assume the bulk of patrons didn’t tell their friends to rally around the monster-fest.

That’s not the case with “Express,” based on Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrated storybook.

Warner Bros. Pictures, which is distributing the Castle Rock film, reports the movie’s CinemaScore exit poll ratings ranked an A+. The few who saw the film on its opening weekend, apparently, liked what they saw and told their friends.

Two, Christmas features will always attract patrons. Even the new “Christmas with the Kranks,” which earned the kind of scathing reviews typically reserved for a Ben Affleck feature, opened strong.

Then there’s the children’s film market. Parents have fewer choices when selecting films for the whole family, no matter how many wee ones inexplicably enter R-rated movies.

This being the oh, so serious Oscar movie season means children’s films will be rare until year’s end.

No child is bound to wail, “C’mon, Mom, I wanna see ‘Closer’” anytime soon.

Finally, “The Polar Express” may also be getting a boost from some super-sized synergy.

“The Polar Express: An Imax 3D Experience” shattered several records for the big movie format in its third weekend, including highest weekend box-office gross, highest five-day box office gross and fastest to gross $10 million.

Overall, the Imax version of “Express” has earned about $10.3 million over its first 19 days.

Perhaps the underdog of this story is Mr. Hanks himself. The actor isn’t having a very Hanks-like year, with both “The Ladykillers” and “The Terminal” underwhelming critics and moviegoers alike.

What were the odds he would release three duds in a row?

About the same as a big-budget feature finding a second life at the cineplex. Slim, but not impossible.

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