If kids have been raised to believe in Santa Claus, there's always that point in their lives when they stop. Whether it's due to friends telling them it's all been a hoax, their discovery of their parents leaving Santa's gifts or just putting the old "two plus two" together, it's one of those pivotal but inevitable points of growing up.
What one hopes that kids manage to retain from the earlier belief is the spirit of Christmas, rather than the deception (or worse yet, the commercialism of the event). That may have been what fueled Chris Van Allsburg to write the acclaimed short story, "The Polar Express" about such a magical train that transports kids to the North Pole for a little Santa reaffirmation.
Now, director Robert Zemeckis and actor Tom Hanks have teamed up (once again following "Forrest Gump" and "Cast Away") to bring the story to the big screen in a family holiday film of the same name. Yet, rather than make a live-action version or a computer-generated one from scratch, they've taken a somewhat novel approach that combines the two. Utilizing a technological process known as performance capture, the director filmed Hanks and others the traditional way and then created digital characters based on them, their features and movements. It's something akin to a high tech version of the old rotoscoping process that became popular with some films and music videos back in the '80s.
The result is an interesting but also odd visual look. While various characters (the train conductor, a hobo who rides the rails and even Santa) look and obviously sound like Hanks (who provided the various voices for them), they somewhat come off like those robotic animatronic figures at the Disney parks. In other words, they're close to real yet still obviously fake. And since they're based on a real person, that's far more noticeable and troubling than was the case in "Final Fantasy" (where the characters had recognizable voices, but novel faces).
The effect, however, is worse for the kid characters. Since Zemeckis and company were presumably going for photo-realism, the fact that they don't quite achieve it results in a collection of near doll-like and occasionally somewhat creepy screen creations. T heir stiff and plastic/rubber appearance ends up as something of a distraction (at least for adults) that might prevent one from being caught up in the film's theme of letting go and believing in the unbelievable.
Of course, if the story had been better or simply more substantive, viewers may have been swept away just enough not to really care that the puppeteer's strings are visible. After all, most of the better animated films don't contain photo-realistic characters, yet they still manage to be engaging and entertaining, and make one forget they're watching a complex series of 0's and 1's flowing across the screen.
I imagine the problem here is that Zemeckis and co-screenwriter William Broyles Jr. ("Unfaithful," "Cast Away") had a devil of a time trying to stretch the original 29-page story into a feature length film. Simply put, there just isn't much plot here to hold one's interest as the train picks up and transports several kids to the North Pole. That said, it's too bad that the filmmakers didn't then take the time to flesh out the characters and make us care about them.
I know it's all supposed to be a big fantasy and/or dream experience. I also recognize that it's pure storytelling in its most streamlined form. You could probably jettison most if not all of the already sparse dialogue and still be able to figure out what's occurring (all of which makes it perfect for overseas markets due to the scant need for subtitles).
Because of and/or despite that, the film does have a certain magical if surreal quality to it. Some might compare it to the similarly otherworldly attractions and fantastical experiences found in the likes of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and even "The Wizard of Oz." I don't think it's as good as either of those films, but there's no denying that the film has a mystifying element that will likely entrance most kids and probably plenty of adults as well.
The kids will certainly enjoy the film's mystical aura, but will likely love the film's various mini-adventures and related visuals. While fun to watch, I found them more to be a narrative gap filler that makes the film seem more substantive and entertaining than it really is. That includes a train ticket's eventually circular aerial trip away from and then back to the train, as well as some roller coaster type moments that would make Six Flags green with envy.
Like most any fairy tale, the story contains some frightening moments and the big one here is one featuring a train car full of discarded toys including some creepy looking ones and scary marionettes hanging by their strings (with one briefly coming "alive"). Call it the Scrooge in me or what you will, but I actually found such moments -- as well as scenes featuring period Christmas songs faintly echoing throughout the empty sidewalks and industrial buildings of the North Pole -- more interesting -- in a sort of Twilight Zone way -- than the more "uplifting" material.
Visually stunning in terms of all of the production design and various effects ("drawn" to resemble the illustrations in the source material) and featuring good vocal work (with Hanks getting the lion's share), the film will likely become a beloved holiday favorite for kids and some adults alike. With little story and clearly not enough emotional connection to the main character, however, the film unnecessarily feels a bit too empty and comes off a bit too artificial like some of its characters.
While it might enthrall and entertain the little ones, there's just not enough here other than some spectacular visuals and the theme of preserving the Christmas spirit (that's under-utilized until the very end with the big lump in the throat conclusion) to turn this into a seasonal classic.