Fri, Dec 10, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Is that the sound of sleigh bells? Or cash registers?

By attempting to digitally recreate the natural world, `Polar Express' fails technically and imaginatively

By Manohla Dargis  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Based on the 32-page children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, the new animated feature The Polar Express has already received attention for the advanced technology employed to make the film and the heart-skipping amount of money reportedly spent to transpose the story from page to screen.

I suspect that most moviegoers care more about stories and characters than how much money it took for a digitally rendered strand of hair to flutter persuasively in the wind. Nor will they care that to make Polar Express Tom Hanks wore a little cap that transmitted a record of his movements to a computer, creating templates for five different animated characters.

It's likely, I imagine, that most moviegoers will be more concerned by the eerie listlessness of those characters' faces and the grim vision of Santa Claus's North Pole compound, with interiors that look like a munitions factory and facades that seem conceived along the same oppressive lines as Coketown, the red-brick town of "machinery and tall chimneys" in Dickens's Hard Times.

Tots surely won't recognize that Santa's big entrance in front of the throngs of frenzied elves and awe-struck children directly evokes, however unconsciously, one of Hitler's Nuremberg rally entrances in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. But their parents may marvel that when Santa's big red sack of toys is hoisted from factory floor to sleigh it resembles nothing so much as an airborne scrotum.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, who wrote the film with William Broyles, The Polar Express is a grave and disappointing failure, as much of imagination as of technology. Turning a book that takes a few minutes to read into a feature-length film presented a significant hurdle that the filmmakers were not able to clear.

Film Notes

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Tom Hanks (Hero Boy/Boy's Father/The Conductor/The Hobo/Santa), Michael Jeter (Smokey/Steamer), Peter Scolari (Lonely Boy), Nona Gaye (Hero Girl), Eddie Deezen (Know-It-All Boy) and Charles Fleischer (Elf General)

Running time: 97minutes

Taiwan Release: today


The story seems simple enough: a nameless young boy neither fully believes nor disbelieves in Santa, but doubt nags at him so hard that he dreams up a train, the Polar Express, which transports him to the North Pole. Essentially Van Allsburg's story is about faith, not in Jesus, but in the fat man in the red suit who pops around each year on Jesus' birthday. As with many children's stories, it's also about the power of the imagination.

The film commences on Christmas Eve with a nameless boy (played by Tom Hanks) fidgeting and fighting against sleep. At eight years of age, the boy seems a little old to be pinning his hopes on Santa. Yet hope he does perhaps because the story is set in the 1950s, the decade when Van Allsburg and Zemeckis were both young Midwestern children.

The illustrations in Van Allsburg's book have a patina of nostalgia, but there's something distinctly melancholic about them as well. The oil pastels the artist used for the pictures soften even the hardest edge. And because Van Allsburg doesn't use loud popping color -- even the red uniforms everyone wears at Santa's factory look muted -- the images seem at once moody and mysterious.

Zemeckis and his team have employed a similarly restrained palette, with a wash of midnight blue tinting the snowy exteriors. After the boy falls asleep, he wakes to a train pulling up in his front yard. After a how-do-you-do with the conductor (Hanks again), the boy boards the train where he meets a number of other children also dressed in their pajamas.

Train rides can make splendid adventures, but not here. Outside of a lovely sequence involving an errant ticket that flies out the train into the beak of a bird, then past a pack of wolves and a shimmering woodland landscape, the passage to the North Pole chugs rather than zooms, as agonizingly long as a childhood car ride to the relatives.

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