The Polar Express
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Robert Zemeckis and William Broyles, Jr. from the book by Chris Van Allsburg
Starring Tom Hanks in a variety of roles


The Polar Express

Having read "The Polar Express" for the first time just the other day, I wasn't looking forward to the movie. Totally without affect, much less plot or characters, with a reading time under thirty seconds, the book had me rolling my eyes in disbelief that the Caldecott jury - any jury - would award it something that might encourage a buyer to spend even a nickel on it.

But the strange, animated Tom Hanks film - with a story made up essentially out of whole cloth by writers Robert Zemeckis and William Broyles Jr. and directed by Mr. Zemeckis - does have a few scenes, very few, of some interest to the viewer. What it does not have is even one bit of originality; it seems cobbled together from a dozen classic stories and films, ranging from "A Christmas Carol" to "Spirited Away," to, of all things, "Triumph of the Will." (For pointing that out I'm grateful to Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, who noted it in her review of the film, describing the convocation of a hundred thousand elves, all in uniform and looking quite menacing, waiting in the Nuremburg - I mean the North Pole's - immense central square for the arrival of Santa Claus.)

It is Christmas Eve, and an eight-year-old boy who's losing faith in Santa Claus wakes in the night to see a train - the Polar Express - waiting to take him to the North Pole. The train ride is interminable and predictable. The conductor is Tom Hanks, or rather a computer-generated image of Tom Hanks, made possible by some hundreds of sensors attached to his face and body as he moved and spoke his lines in front of the blue screen that is invisible when other images, like a setting or an object, are folded in to the picture. Since everyone in the film is made similarly it is worthwhile asking just why Zemeckis did it this way. What we notice immediately is that no one's lips move in any way resembling real life; they all seem to have lockjaw. The boy's in particular seem almost frozen in place, and not very well in sync with his speech.

He meets other children on the train, as well as a hobo, who I believe represents Christmas magic, as he appears and disappears at will. But I could be wrong, since the whole film is so unreal. At any rate the boy, who is identified in the credits only as 'Hero Boy,' gets to meet Santa - all the adults are impersonated by Mr. Hanks, as is the boy for some reason - and is given a reindeer's sleigh bell as his present. Well, okay, though it's not what you or I would want. Anyway, he promptly loses it, only to find it again on Christmas morning when he wakes up back in his own house. And wouldn't you know, the bell only rings for himself and his little sister - because they believe, of course. End of film. I hope I haven't given anything away.