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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 12.7%
Average: 26.98%
Pretty Bad: 19.84%
Total Crap: 12.7%

9 reviews, 72 user ratings

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Polar Express, The
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by Erik Childress

"Seeing IS Believing. You Serious, Clark?"
5 stars

Robert Zemeckis has previously directed a dozen films; four of which (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Cast Away) were named the best film of their respective year by yours truly. Those four titles are a ticketed career in anyone’s Hollywood and his other eight aren’t shabby by a longshot either. Very few live-action filmmakers have ever steered their imagination directly into the world of animation. Vice versa is another story and is normally truncated by lacking the chops to do more beyond the visuals. Zemeckis has a one-up times ten on the animators by approaching it with the same moxie of a film lover who can’t wait to open that big present under the tree and play with it over and over. And, as always, Zemeckis re-gifts it for us all and delivers an instant Christmas classic which shall be re-opened every holiday the same way Charlie Brown and the Grinch are.

I first remember Tom Hanks talking about this book written by Chris Van Allsburg on David Letterman’s show in the late 90’s. Even back then when this project was just a glimmer in his eye, I could see the kinship he felt to it. Little did I know it was only a 32-page book, heavy on the illustrations and light on the words; but not the poetry. It’s a universal tale that not surprisingly touches as many adults as it would children so it’s only fitting that the same approach would inspire the filmmakers.

The original text doesn’t need more than a single sentence to describe it. A boy whose faith in Santa Claus is dwindling is invited to hop a ride to the North Pole to meet the big guy. Zemeckis and co-screenwriter William Broyles Jr. started from there and expanded the adventure.

A train ride is frought with opportunities for danger, even one as meticulously scheduled as The Polar Express that would make Mussolini proud. We’re treated to the kind of rollercoaster-like spills almost designed for a theme park somewhere over-and-over. A jumping from the tracks over a frozen lake gives Zemeckis the opportunity to create the sort of action sequence that would be almost impossible to behold in the real world. The exhilaration is like a gut-punch that instantly travels throughout your body and finds the sensitive areas of your soul. And that’s just the action.

We can probably all remember the age or the moment when we discovered beyond a reasonable doubt that Santa Claus was nothing more than a bedtime doppelganger for the spirit of Christmas. Maybe you were sad. Maybe you felt a growing of your intelligence. Maybe it was the first moment of resentment for being duped all those years. The young boy of The Polar Express feels a bit of each. His collection of anti-Santa evidence is a clever highlight in the midst of still experiencing some shock as his parents drop further hints.

The other children onboard are mostly along for the ride and have few doubts beyond initially deciding to hop on. There’s a brave little girl who befriends our skeptic hero. Another is an annoying know-it-all with the inspired casting choice of Zemeckis’ favorite Jerry Lewis substitute, Eddie Deezen. One little boy has never experienced the traditional dalliances that come with the holiday myths and sense of gift-giving and finds himself alone in a world of celebration that he’s never been invited to. Until now.

Hanks himself plays five roles including the young hero and his father; though whom only seen in glimmers and shadows still retains the unmistakable features of its star. The motion capture technology (initially developed by the golfing industry of all things) wielded in the film is another benchmark in the Zemeckis revolution. Innovations to animation almost begin and end with Pixar and various styles have been experimented with from Shrek to Final Fantasy to this year’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Simply put, The Polar Express is the grandest “WOW” experience I’ve had in this world of film since the original Toy Story. It’s like discovering Pixar all over again.

What’s wondrous about Robert Zemeckis beyond his innovations and astute skills as a storyteller is that he’s consistently trying to outdo not others, but himself. Some filmmakers homage previous works. Zemeckis is always improving on them. When he wanted to fantasize the kind of film Hitchcock would make today given the technology at his disposal, he went for it in What Lies Beneath. His glee for placing and moving the camera where none has gone before creates breathless bouts of anticipation for where he will go next. There are shots through the train, under-and-over it, with angles that could only be created by special effects in the 2-D world. The feather trail in Forrest Gump was just a warmup compared to what he does here with a lost ticket.

If there is any fault with The Polar Express, it’s almost as if they had TOO much fun with their toys. Taking us up to the boundaries of imagination and greeting us with an Elf Lieutenant singing a rockin’ Steven Tyler song is a bit off-putting, particularly when a CGI Tyler is even scarier looking than the 2-D version.

Zemeckis and Broyles do a really fine job with the screenplay, keeping its themes in check and providing food-for-thought rather than driving home a definitive ideology. That may be a bit much for kids. But keeping a character like Hanks’ hobo within the realm of mystery and the existence of entities from angels to ghosts to Santa up to our own sense of faith (as evidenced in Zemeckis’ Contact) is a more productive message than someone telling us we’re all right or all wrong. Forgive me for sounding somewhat hypocritical, but The Polar Express IS all right, a noteworthy achievement that is impossible to scoff at on a technical level and Scrooge-like to humbug at it’s fairy-tale enchantment of hope and wonder. Alan Silvestri’s exquisite all-encompassing score is a perfect counterpart and the story is immortally Christmas. Do not miss the opportunity to begin a new family tradition, because with The Polar Express seeing truly is believing.

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originally posted: 11/10/04 16:24:03
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Chicago Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell good christmas movie 4 stars
12/17/11 Liz Nice story, extremely creepy animation 2 stars
12/24/09 Shawn This film sucks. You need to be on acid to to make sense of it. 1 stars
12/14/09 RLan A good christmas movie. Best viewed by families. 4 stars
12/04/09 RK Yes, it's a little weird...but also very good. Love the 3 kids, esp the girl. 4 stars
1/23/09 Seinfeld Lover Yet ANOTHER great book ruined when it became a movie 1 stars
1/15/09 Anonymous. not many, if any, animated movies are like this one. 4 stars
9/17/08 Chad An absolutely perfect animated film, my all time favorite animated movie 5 stars
9/03/08 Shaun Wallner Great Kids Film! 5 stars
5/31/07 ES Zzzzz 2 stars
3/27/07 kathy underheart childress' review made be blow chunks. Yeah, the 'holiday classic' noone bothers with today 1 stars
12/29/06 David Cohen Eddie Deezan and wooden facial expressions bring down a potential classic 3 stars
12/25/06 dk Soulless but entertaining. 4 stars
12/03/06 Tangelo Soosepot Evokes winter. Takes the X out of X-mas and inserts creepy Santa. 2 stars
12/03/06 Mary Ruined not only a great book but the SPIRIT of Christmas too. 1 stars
12/02/06 M. Wolff An ugly, dead thing. This mushy horror could kill Christmas. 1 stars
9/29/06 Big Fan Best X-mas movie on the planet 5 stars
7/12/06 ian afford good to watch at xmas with the kids in booze fueled coma 3 stars
1/04/06 jeffrey blake great film,an animated feature that adults can enjoy 5 stars
12/16/05 Quigley the glacier gulch scene is worth $9. the movie is both stunning and occasionally emotional. 5 stars
12/16/05 Eden Soulless and empty, with creepy children 1 stars
12/13/05 Ginger I hated it! They took the book and RUINED it as a movie! It sucked!!! 1 stars
12/08/05 Phil M. Aficionado Stunning visually, but limp emotionally; and what is the point, exactlly? I missed it. 3 stars
12/08/05 someone special it sucked 1 stars
11/29/05 Melissa AWESOME!!! 5 stars
11/26/05 Thomas webb Great chistmas classic - Best in IMAX... 5 stars
11/24/05 Evil Wolfie I usually hate Christmas movies, but this was actually good. Go figure....... 4 stars
9/27/05 rafi not much of an adult movie , but still very nice.. 4 stars
9/22/05 Jonathon Holmes good movie, but not as good as "The Incredibles" 4 stars
7/04/05 mariann This is a must-see in 3D, at the IMAX theatres! Incredible and charming! 5 stars
6/06/05 Helen Bradley Very clever fast script Hanks awesome 5 stars
4/23/05 Quigley the glacier culch sequence is worth $9. could've been more emotional, but still a classic 5 stars
1/30/05 Frank Tells good movie 3 stars
1/29/05 Lisa Clarizio Creepy animation for christmas 2 stars
1/28/05 Jeff Anderson The greatest family holiday movie of ALL TIME! See it right away. A MUST SEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
1/07/05 shane brown held on to my seat train was faster than a roller coaster 5 stars
1/06/05 Scott Smith Awesome! An instant classic on a grand scale. 5 stars
12/29/04 Bill Masengarb Will become a Christmas classic. 5 stars
12/29/04 Natalie Stonecipher Falls pretty flat, even for lovers of train journeys and Santa Claus story. 2&1/2 stars. 3 stars
12/27/04 cindy parry Wonderful! saw it 3 times! 5 stars
12/18/04 Theresa Wagner great retelling of the book, nicely crafted 4 stars
12/13/04 Donna Cole Magical 5 stars
12/12/04 Michael Baldaccini This Movie is great Family fun. My kids love it! 5 stars
12/09/04 James Culp Great !Cartoon greatest effort in 70yr 5 stars
12/08/04 Michael AWESOME. SEE IT AT THE IMAX THEATER IN 3-D 5 stars
12/05/04 Mark D Fulwiler Disappointing 3 stars
12/03/04 Pau-red Didn't have an issue with the eyes, did you actually watch the movie or just the preview? 5 stars
12/02/04 Santa Makes "Gremlins" look like a classic !!! Bring back Gizmo and Stripe !!! 3 stars
12/01/04 Annie Best Christmas movie since Its a Wonderful Life 5 stars
11/28/04 chris. am i the only person who wasn't horrified by half of this movie?? 3 stars
11/26/04 Linda Jow Need to see it in IMAX 3-D, all t classes of 1st grader in our school loved it! 4 stars
11/23/04 alien assassin Great CGI...shame about the story 3 stars
11/23/04 Kristina Williams The eyes are too....damn...CREEPY!! 1 stars
11/21/04 Naka Nope! 1 stars
11/20/04 Melissa in New York WAY TOO EARLY FOR X-MAS! Drag a friend with you, make snide comments through the movie. 2 stars
11/19/04 Phillip Their eyes..............(shudder) 2 stars
11/19/04 Awesome! 5 stars
11/19/04 Atom All positive movie. Great. Nothing like the rest of the movies made today. 5 stars
11/17/04 Joesph Markshaft Its really crap the animation was worse than FF Spirits within 1 stars
11/17/04 Cool Leather Jacket bored out of my mind....zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz 1 stars
11/16/04 Dunce a slap in the face to *real* animation. ugly, ugly, ugly! 1 stars
11/16/04 April I would rather be shot (and quartered)than have to see this movie again 1 stars
11/15/04 rhody polished turd! 1 stars
11/14/04 Danny 3D version is revolutionary, a different movie 5 stars
11/14/04 Nadia I didn't like it. Could it be because I don't believe? Oh no! 2 stars
11/12/04 Kelly Amazing! Take a ride and believe and laugh and have a blast! best time in a long time! 5 stars
11/12/04 Scott Carter Rotten and only for kids under 3 1 stars
11/12/04 Drew Cosbie GREAT FAMILY FILM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
11/11/04 ted pakozdi incredible 5 stars
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  10-Nov-2004 (G)
  DVD: 22-Nov-2005



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