The Polar Express
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Based on the Caldecott Medal-winning children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express makes a marvelous transition to the silver screen. Children's books don't always fare so well. Look no further than last year's Cat in the Hat for an example of a children's book that fell flat when translated by Hollywood. Slim children's books like The Polar Express and Cat in the Hat require a considerable amount of expansion in order to fill out a feature length running time. Cat in the Hat collapsed because of its misguided expansions, which provided nothing more than irrelevancies that distracted from the simplicity of the storytelling. The Polar Express also gets opened up, but there is much more between the pages of The Polar Express than in Cat in the Hat.

The book is a beautiful picture book that illustrates a boy's trek to the North Pole aboard a train that magically rolls to a stop on Christmas Eve in front of his home. There is a lot that goes unsaid in the book. It doesn't attempt to tell us what's happening during every step of the journey. Instead, we get snapshots of several key images, which the filmmakers go to great pains to recreate on screen. Drector Robert Zemeckis and his crew have provided amazingly faithful recreations of most of the book's wonderful color illustrations—from the train arriving on the boy's street to wolves prowling the woods as the train passes to Santa's sleigh burdened with a huge bag full of toys. Between these pictures, the movie version of The Polar Express provides a continuing story that seems a logical extension of the book. Unlike Cat in the Hat, where the filmmakers re-envisioned the book's story, here the filmmakers put faith in the original story and provide only modest detours. For example, we're introduced to a hobo who rides the Polar Express and serves as a guardian angel for children who ride the train. This addition comfortably slips into the book's world of magic.

For those people not familiar with Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express, the book tells a brief but charming story about a boy who dreams that a train named the Polar Express arrives at his house on Christmas Eve. He wanders outside to investigate and after talking to the conductor becomes a passenger on the journey to the North Pole, where he meets Santa Claus. The movie provides only some minor tinkering with the book's premise. The screenwriters (Zemeckis and William Broyles, Jr.) have made this journey somewhat more important for the boy because he has begun to doubt whether Santa Claus truly exists. So now the story works as a reaffirmation of Christmas and the importance of faith.

To film this story with live action would have required huge sets, much larger than could ever actually be created, with incredible sights that could only be provided by CGI effects. Because so much of the movie would by necessity have required special effects, Zemeckis chose to render the entire story in computer-generated animation. The actors were outfitted with a matrix of key point sensors and then filmed against a blue screen. The resulting images were converted directly into grids of points upon which textures, surfaces, and fills colors could be added. The results are possibly the most life-like animation to ever appear on a movie screen. Tom Hanks, who plays the conductor, still looks much like the Tom Hanks that we all know (with the addition of a bushy mustache). He also plays several other characters in the movie, including the movie's central character, the boy who catches a ride on the Polar Express. (The boy receives no name in the movie.)

The Polar Express will undoubtedly become traditional viewing for most American families during the Christmas season. It's a visually brilliant rendering of a children's classic. My only reservation comes near the end of movie when the children arrive at the North Pole and Zemeckis and his crew need to devise something to keep the children busy. So what is the screenwriters' solution? The children get lost and wander about the streets trying to find the way back to the central plaza where the elves have congregated and Santa Claus will make his appearance. This episode is a clumsy time eater. Yes, it lets us see more of the North Pole, but this episode lacks the imagination present throughout the rest of the movie and merely serves to protract the movie's running time. In contrast, most of the other expansion sequences work quite well, such as a thrilling slide across a frozen lake on the out-of-control Polar Express.

One word of warning to parents: at the movie's beginning, the boy suspects that Santa Claus might be a fantasy. So if you'd rather not yet broach this subject with your child, you might consider waiting until your child is a little older and the subject has been settled.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Warner Bros. Pictures
Movie Web site: The Polar Express



Photos: © 2004 Warner Bros. Pictures. All rights reserved.