- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

While undeniably ambitious, elaborate and innovative, “The Polar Express,” director Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of a brief, evocative children’s book intended to affirm the existence of Santa Claus, nevertheless emerges as a Frankenstein’s monster of seasonal whimsy.

“The Polar Express” transforms its unassuming source material — Chris Van Allsburg’s 1985 best seller ran to all of 30 pages — into an industrial-strength fairy tale, a $165 million computer-animated spectacle.

On the face of things, “Polar Express” would seem better suited to television, perhaps as a half-hour animated special. Quite a bit of padding is needed to sustain the dream-borne train journey that takes an unnamed boy from his bedroom in Grand Rapids on a snowy Christmas Eve to a far north industrial metropolis that confirms Santa as an old-timey toymaking, packaging and distributing colossus.

Trusting children probably don’t need to see the evidence of an imposing factory town in order to believe in Santa. The passengers on the train are supposed to be kids who have begun to doubt his magical essence, but it’s curious that none talk about this particular growing pain while sharing a slumber party train ride.

All the kids have been summoned aboard while dressed in pajamas, nightgowns and robes, and this felicitous touch is echoed by many others. For example, the first appearance of the train, emerging from a cloud of snowfall and silvery exhaust, is splendid; the animators seem to have taken Mr. Allsburg’s original drawing and made it vibrate expressively on the screen.

The decision to render the human characters in a kind of hybrid of live-action and animation may also have been dictated by the book’s portraiture. Unfortunately, the needed vibrations rarely penetrate into facial surfaces; these remain flat and inexpressive, apart from mouths and eyebrows. The children in particular are compromised by an unflattering facial heaviness.

The special effects supervisors, Ken Ralston and Jerome Chen, employed the newest refinement on rotoscoping, which vintage animators used as a tracing technique in order to provide outlines for certain characters, usually humans. Now a technique called motion-capture or performance-capture, already used in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Matrix” films, permits actors dressed in sensor-dotted jumpsuits to act out scenes on minimal sets and transmit an electronic blueprint of body movements and facial expressions into computer memory banks.

This skeletal outline can be pictorially concealed and enhanced in numerous ways, but they seem to fall well short of adequate facial expression. The technique did permit Tom Hanks to model five roles: the young protagonist and his father; the train conductor (the folksiest and most recognizably Hanksian of his parts); a vanishing hobo who rides the roofs of cars like a Cheshire cat; and the keenly disappointing Santa.

This payoff threatens to be a deal-breaker: Santa as a towering but underweight eminence with a grotesquely chalky complexion. After a repeatedly cliffhanging and disaster-dodging ride to the Pole, it’s a comedown to think that Santa resembles the ghost of Gen. de Gaulle, needs a presentable white beard and overdoes his face powder.

A somewhat overblown labor of love, the movie version of “The Polar Express” is still distinctive enough to join the gallery of Christmas movie perennials.

***

TITLE: “The Polar Express”

RATING: G (ominous and perilous episodes)

CREDITS: Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by William Broyles, Jr. and Mr. Zemeckis, based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg. Special effects supervisors: Ken Ralston and Jerome Chen. Production design by Rick Carter and Don Chiang. Cinematography by Don Burgess and Robert Presley. Costume design by Joanna Johnston. Music by Alan Silvestri. Songs by Glen Ballard and Mr. Silvestri

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

WEB SITE: www.polarexpress.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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