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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 Jay Seaver

"Robert Zemeckis remakes 'Contact', with Santa Claus as the aliens."
3 stars

When I saw "The Polar Express" in IMAX 3-D the morning of December 4th (I was trying to cram as many movies into a 36-hour period at the end of a "Movie Watch-a-Thon" fundraiser as possible and it was Boston's only 10am show), I was duly amazed by the 3-D presentation but left rather cold by pretty much everything else. Pretty, I thought, but pointless in another medium. I emended that assessment upon seeing my step-nephew NOT bounce off the walls for an hour and a half watching his new DVD on Christmas Day, despite the, um, "gentle mockery" of the movie delivered by my brothers and me. Keeping the attention of a six-year-old with a stocking's worth of Christmas candy in his system doesn't make "The Polar Express" a GOOD movie, but does mark it as potentially USEFUL.

To give the movie its due, when The Polar Express is operating as a roller-coaster ride - much more literally than many of the movies to which this sobriquet is applied - with the titular train zooming through a succession of lovingly-rendered perils on the way to the North Pole, it can be an awesome sight, especially if you're seeing it on a screen six stories high and through a pair of polarized lenses. Unlike with Chicken Little, I strongly suspect director Robert Zemeckis had 3-D presentation in mind when making this movie, although he keeps the throwing things at the audience to a minimum in order to make it palatable for people seeing it in conventional theaters or on DVD. The audience's stomach lurches sympathetically when the train zooms down a hill or skids on a frozen lake, and more than one kid near me in the theater tried to reach out and catch snowflakes. When this is a movie about things, it is an astonishingly staged film whose visuals will be difficult to top.

When it's a movie about people, though, it is one of the creepiest things ever produced as children's entertainment. The kids' faces are flat and stiff, and they move like little adults because that's who plays them, with some voices overdubbed by younger actors. So you get what is clearly an animated movie, but with movements bound by what live actors can do and facial expression even more constrained. The result is an imitation of kids, but with little of their vitality and energy. It's not just that, though; big production numbers are intricate but soulless: I can't recall any musical interlude quite so busy-but-robotic as this movie's "Hot Chocolate" bit. And then we get to the mixed messages the story seems to send...

Of course, seeming to send mixed messages is perhaps a good thing if the idea is to not send any message at all, but just to tell a simple story. Here, that story is that a boy (voice of Daryl Sabara, movement by Tom Hanks) is beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus, until one Christmas Eve when a magical train pulls up in front of his house, and offers him a ride to the North Pole. On the train, he meets a friendly girl (Nona Gaye), an annoying know-it-all (Eddie Deezen), and a poor kid from "the other side of the tracks" (voice of Jimmy Bennett, movement by Peter Scolari), along with the train's conductor (Hanks) and a mysterious hobo who rides on top of the train (Hanks again). It's an eventful ride, with lost tickets, frozen lakes, and an unexpected detour when the train finally reaches the North Pole.

Anyway, here's my beef with what the movie is telling kids: Our unnamed protagonist starts out questioning the world around him, thinking, reading, and drawing conclusions from what he discovers... And by the end of the movie, which has occasionally suggested that the that transpire after from the time he goes to bed five minutes in to the time he wakes up five minutes from the end may all be a dream, he has learned to simply believe what he's been told. This strikes me as a character shrinking, not growing. I mean, when Zemeckis pulled something similar in Contact, it was at least a kind of clever irony; this is much more cut-and-dried. We also get the wishy-washy "Christmas just doesn't work out for me" explanation from the poor little boy, dodging the whole idea that Santa doesn't visit everyone, and that kids whose parents can afford DVD players and trips to the IMAX should be grateful and privileged to have what they do.

I could, I admit, be entirely misrepresenting things. This could be a dream rife with symbolism - the other kids representing different parts of the main character's psyche (doubt, trust, excessive pride), and the adult characters mostly sounding like his father (also played by, you guessed it, Tom Hanks) because he represents loving authority to a little boy. Even the questionable "lessons learned" part at the end might make more sense if you assume that it's coming from the mind of a young boy, and thus seems perfectly logical to him. It's just that this movie never feels that smart (and, of course, there's the inevitable ambiguity-destroying moment at the end); it never has that moment where everything we've seen suddenly takes on new significance.

At least, not for me. It held the kid's attention, though, even while his step-uncles were trading jokes about it. Heck, it held my attention, when it was six stories high and jumping out at me.

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originally posted: 12/28/05 12:25:13
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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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