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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 Collin Souter

"The City of Found Children"
4 stars

Chris Van Allsburg’s book “The Polar Express” can be read in about five minutes. It’s a well told, beautifully illustrated bedtime story about a boy who feels uncertain about his belief in Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, he takes a special train to the North Pole and sees the myth first hand, thereby restoring his belief in all things Santa. That’s it, really. No moral, no lesson, no shocking revelation. Just a nice journey from A to B. It should come as no surprise then that the movie can be described in much the same way, except…Wow!

Less a story and more of a series of beautifully executed action set pieces, Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” takes Van Allsburg’s childhood classic and pads it out to a solid 100 minutes. There exist no villains, no antagonists and again no major plot points. Zemeckis and his team of computer animators instead achieve an overall warm feeling that comes from believing in you-know-who. “The Polar Express” succeeds in making believers out of its audience, even if it has nothing to say about it, other than it being an essential part of childhood.

The nameless Hero is a boy of about nine years old, that age where you begin to reconsider your belief in Santa Claus. When he goes to bed on Christmas Eve, an earth shattering rumbling accompanied by strange blocks of lights occurs from outside his house. He runs outside and finds a gigantic train called The Polar Express has stopped in front of his house, never mind the fact that train tracks never existed there before. A Conductor steps off the train and invites our Hero to get on board for a trip to the North Pole.

The Hero reluctantly gets on and finds many other children on a similar journey. The three most notable characters become important later on: Hero Girl (voiced by Nona M. Gaye), a spastic, fast talking Know-It-All (voiced by, who else, Eddie Deezen) and Lonely Boy (Peter Scolari). As the train makes its way, the Hero Girl loses her ticket, but gets in back in a wonderful scene that evokes the teardrop sequence from “The City of Lost Children.” While trying to get her ticket back for her, Hero Boy climbs to the top of the train and finds an old Hobo sitting by a campfire. They talk for a while and the boy confesses, “I want to believe, but…”

The journey from the boy’s home to the North Pole is fraught with peril as the train goes skidding onto some ice, which causes it to completely derail. Once the train docks safe and soundly, the kids venture off into the land of Christmas where they learn more of its secrets as well as its dangers. In that time, the kids start coming into their own as leaders, believers and learners.

Zemeckis has always tried to challenge himself on almost every one of his movies by trying to stay on the cutting edge of technology through attempting what has never been attempted. “The Polar Express” may be one of the most amazing technical achievements you’ll ever see. The sequence involving the derailed train defies description in terms of how real it looks, how exciting it is and how it will remind you that even though we have come this far in computer animation and that Pixar and DreamWorks have shown us some amazing sights, you really haven’t seen it all.

Some have complained that the human characters don’t look real enough, that their eyes don’t reveal much. I disagree, but I also don’t understand the need to fully flesh out any human characters in a computer animated movie. When “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” came out, the filmmakers wanted us to be in awe of how real the humans looked. My question: Why bother? Why not just hire real actors, make it live action and save yourself the unnecessary hours of combing over minor details to make them look human? That way you get real performances.

Tom Hanks gives the main performance here, providing voices and body work for six characters, including our Hero. Much of the time we know it’s him, but he steps into each part with such dedication that we forget. It’s a wonderful vocal performance that adds a storybook feel to it, as though you’re the child and he’s reading Van Allsburg’s book and doing all the voices.

The movie’s main weakness comes in the form of two disposable musical numbers that add very little to the narrative. They succeed in reminding us that there’s not much here in terms of a story arc and that the movie needs more padding in order to justify its length (and I really don’t need a CG Steven Tyler to remind me of who contributed to the soundtrack). “The Polar Express” could easily be told in a half-hour and it doesn’t exactly have a timeless message behind it. It basically says that believing in Santa Claus is really cool, so you should do it while you’re young and try to keep a little bit of it with you as you grow older and have kids of your own.

This is not the first time Zemeckis has made a movie with no plot (you may remember a little movie called “Forrest Gump”) and I don’t believe that every movie needs to subscribe to the Syd Field screenwriting guidebook. “The Polar Express” makes its audience feel like children again, a feeling all too rare in this moviegoing climate. It’s a film that goes down nicely, like having “Twas the Night Before Christmas” read before bedtime. We see encyclopedias and record players in the background instead of internet and CD players. The movie operates on an old fashioned level using new technology. Plot or no plot, it’s definitely a ride worth taking.

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originally posted: 11/11/04 01:11:22
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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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