As he’s beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus, a boy is taken on an amazing journey to the North Pole by the titular train. Stories don’t get much simpler than that but often, what’s simple is true. In any case, “The Polar Express” is a very visual picture, especially if you have the chance to see the IMAX 3D version. The picture was conceived for regular 35mm film, but being all CGI, it was fairly easy to make the transition. I’m generally not a big fan of 3D flicks, which tend to be vacuously eye-popping, but this one really awed me. Like with all his FX-heavy movies, Zemeckis tells his story without limiting himself, then lets the technology catch up to his imagination. The camera movements are daredevil-insane (again, especially in 3D) – no keeping it simple for the animators here!
Using a next-generation form of rotoscoping called “performance capture”, the filmmakers had actors perform while covered with reflective dots, which make it possible for their movements and facial expressions to be directly transposed into CG figures. The characters are almost eerily lifelike, and the movie as a whole is pretty gorgeous, like a storybook brought to life.
But “The Polar Express” is about more than eye candy. The train ride is full of thrills, the musical numbers are great and Tom Hanks is a lot of fun, playing five very different characters: the “hero boy”, his father, the bald and moustachioed train conductor, a hobo and even Santa himself! The film is also full of heart and holiday cheer.
There are a few little things that keep “The Polar Express” from greatness. Alan Silvestri’s score is a shameless rip-off of Danny Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands music, the stretching of a 29 page book into a full 90 minutes makes for the slightest third act lull and Santa’s big entrance is not actually that climactic. Then again, it kinda makes sense for the journey to be more fun than the destination. As one of Hanks’ characters says, “The thing with trains is, what matters is not where they’re going, it’s deciding to get on.” Believing will always be more powerful than seeing. Or something.