More in-depth film festival coverage than any other website!
Home Reviews  Articles  Release Dates Coming Soon  DVD  Top 20s Criticwatch  Search
Public Forums  Festival Coverage  Contests About 

Overall Rating

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

9 reviews, 72 user ratings

Latest Reviews

Pollinators, The by Jay Seaver

Cold Case Hammarskjold by Jay Seaver

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache by Lybarger

One Child Nation (aka Born in China) by Jay Seaver

Kingdom (2019) by Jay Seaver

Chained for Life by Rob Gonsalves

Ready or Not by Peter Sobczynski

Nightingale, The by Jay Seaver

Line Walker 2: Invisible Spy by Jay Seaver

Death of Dick Long, The by Jay Seaver

subscribe to this feed

Polar Express, The
[] Buy posters from this movie
by EricDSnider

"Lifeless and frozen, and the people look creepy."
3 stars

Here's what clout can get you: If anyone other than Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks were involved in making a film version of "The Polar Express," no one would suspect for a minute that it would be any good. The children's book it's based on is something like 30 pages long -- far too short to be adapted into a feature -- and it has no story to speak of. (Boy doubts Santa Claus; boy gets on magic train that takes him to North Pole on Christmas Eve; boy believes.) If anyone else were doing this, you'd hear about it and say, "A movie version of 'The Polar Express'? Computer-animated? Wow, that's gonna suck."

But since it's Zemeckis and Hanks, we take notice. We give them the benefit of the doubt. We know it's rare for either of them to make a truly BAD movie, and their joint efforts ("Forrest Gump" and "Cast Away") were outstanding. So, like a skeptical kid caught up in the magic of Christmas Eve, we start to believe. "Maybe this movie is gonna be OK after all," we think. "Maybe...."

And then, like the same kid sneaking downstairs to find Dad eating the cookies left out for Santa, we realize we were fools to ever believe that such a thing was possible. Screw you, Tom Hanks! Screw you, Robert Zemeckis! You made a dull, un-magical film!

Zemeckis, a special-effects guy from way back, had his team create new technology just to make a mediocre movie. The film is computer-animated, in a sense, with real actors' motions being captured digitally and converted into animation. The result is that everything looks very realistic, as long as it stands still. Once it starts moving -- and this applies to people, trains and animals -- it looks fake and mechanical. People's faces look especially creepy, like robots trying to approximate human behavior.

It's hard to identify with characters who seem alien, and that problem is exacerbated by a screenplay that gives them nothing to do. Adapted from Chris Van Allsburg's picture book by Zemeckis and frequent collaborator William Broyles Jr., the film stays true to the book without adding a lot of subplots or diversions. I admire the faithfulness, I suppose, but let's remember: The book has about five minutes' worth of text. The movie merely stretches it out. So now, where the book might simply say, "And Santa flew off into the night," we have a spectacular visual of Santa flying off into the night ... and it lasts for two minutes.

Our hero, whose name we do not learn, is a young boy whose belief in Santa Claus is beginning to wane. On Christmas Eve, a magical train pulls up outside his house and the conductor (Tom Hanks, who is also the narrator and a few other characters) invites him aboard. Where's the train going? "Why, the North Pole, of course!" is the wonderfully Hanks-ian reply.

On the train, Hero Boy meets Lonely Boy (Peter Scolari), Hero Girl (Nona Gaye) and Know-It-All (Eddie Deezen), all fellow travelers on this crazy journey, presumably all Santa-doubters, too. As the train chugs northward, Hero Boy and friends get into a variety of train-related adventures: losing tickets, falling out windows, skidding across ice, encountering large herds of caribou, that sort of thing, all of it rendered grandly and beautifully and without any heart whatsoever.

There are also a couple musical numbers, including the singularly generic pop tune "When Christmas Comes to Town," plaintively sung by Hero Girl and Lonely Boy (well, by two singers the producers brought in to sing for them) in a manner suggesting someone really, really wants the song to be nominated for an Oscar.

But then there is Tom Hanks. I caught "Saturday Night Live's" "Best of Tom Hanks" rerun last week, and it occurred to me exactly why he's so popular: enthusiasm. He committed to every character in every sketch in that show with abandon -- not reckless abandon, but confident, skillful, cheerful abandon. Yeah, yeah, there's the Method Acting stuff like gaining and losing all that weight for "Cast Away"; obviously that takes dedication. But the dedication that audiences really respond to is the commitment an actor makes IN THE MOMENT, on the screen. When Hanks plays a role -- and he plays several in "The Polar Express" -- he doesn't just phone it in. He gives it the full weight of his intelligence, energy and talent. You just enjoy watching him.

Which is another reason "The Polar Express" doesn't quite work: The stilted animation can't keep up with Hanks' effervescence. The Pixar folks managed it in the "Toy Story" films, but here the medium is too weighty to match the buoyancy in Hanks' performances. Besides, all the vivacity in the world can't help a movie that has no story.

link directly to this review at
originally posted: 11/10/04 17:44:11
[printer] printer-friendly format  
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
Note: Duplicate, 'planted,' or other obviously improper comments
will be deleted at our discretion. So don't bother posting 'em. Thanks!
Your Name:
Your Comments:
Your Location: (state/province/country)
Your Rating:

Discuss this movie in our forum

  10-Nov-2004 (G)
  DVD: 22-Nov-2005



Home Reviews  Articles  Release Dates Coming Soon  DVD  Top 20s Criticwatch  Search
Public Forums  Festival Coverage  Contests About Australia's Largest Movie Review Database.
Privacy Policy | HBS Inc. | |   

All data and site design copyright 1997-2017, HBS Entertainment, Inc.
Search for
reviews features movie title writer/director/cast