a critiQal film review The Polar Express (2004)

Plot: A young boy (Hanks) is awakened on Christmas Eve by a train that pulls up right outside his house. The Conductor (Hanks) tells him the train is bound for The North Pole. Doubtingly, the boy steps aboard and begins a wondrous journey aboard The Polar Express.

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  • ...spectacular animation and a heartwarming Christmas storyline help make this one a sure-fire part of your holiday traditions for years to come.

Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis have teamed up before with Forrest Gump (1994) and Cast Away. Just in time for the holidays, they go animated in The Polar Express.

Not being a big Hanks fan (or a Forrest Gump (1994) fan, for that matter), and having never seen Cast Away, this film didn’t have a lot going for it in my book when I first heard about it. True, Hanks did a good job voicing Woody in Toy Story (1995) and it’s sequel, but that could have been a fluke. After all, the last movie I really liked Hanks the person in was way back in Joe Versus The Volcano. Maybe his whining just gets to me, I don’t know.

The more Heather and I heard about The Polar Express, however, the better it sounded. A new process of animation that is able to produce breathtaking scenery and almost real-to-life characters? Hmmm….sounds intriguing. The film is based on a children’s book that was a phenomenal success? Hmmm…sounds promising.

Despite some interest, we decided to give the film a pass when it made it’s way through theaters…perhaps we just weren’t in the Christmas spirit back then. When the film hit DVD late this November, we were just starting to get a little bit of Christmas spirit going, so decided to rent The Polar Express. Would the film be able to start our Christmas season off with a bang, or would it be more of a whimper?

It turns out Toy Story (1995) wasn’t just a fluke…Hanks has a voice meant for animation. Without his habitual abused puppy dog look filling up the screen, Hanks’ voice is able to take center stage, and really shines on it’s own. Being the overachiever spotlight-grabber that he is, he doesn’t content himself with just one animated role this time around. Instead the viewer gets to see him in 5 different roles in The Polar Express: Boy, Boy’s Father, The Conductor, The Hobo and Santa!

Surprisingly, Hanks’ voice, while recognizably still his, does vary enough between each character to distinguish them apart. Michael Jeter, Peter Scolari, Nona Gaye, Eddie Deezen and Charles Fleischer all also help contribute voices to the film, with Nona being able to breathe the most life into her character, The Girl.

The plot of The Polar Express is remarkably entertaining, coming as it does from a children’s book written by an author most will have never heard of (Of course, the same could have been said about J.K. Rowling when the first Harry Potter hit bookstores). The characters aren’t fully fleshed out (most don’t even have names), but they are rounded enough for the viewer to distinguish them apart, and have enough character to keep the viewers interested in what happens to them.

While the plot does drift off point every so often, the underlying themes of the innocence and magic of childhood stay true throughout The Polar Express. By the end, the viewer will be satisfied with the journey they’ve been on with these characters, although some loose ends are never really tied up.

The special effects, complete with a new motion-capture technology, are very impressive. For some scenes in The Polar Express, the viewer will be hard-pressed to tell if they are animated or real – it’s that good. They haven’t quite gotten some of the effects perfected yet, like smoke or steam evaporation, but that’s to be expected with a brand-new process. The pros far outweigh any minor glitches still to be worked on, and The Polar Express does it’s best to showcase how far this new technology can go. The scenery is incredible, and some of the scenes of the film have to be seen to be believed.

The Polar Express, with this new technology, has pushed animation one step closer to realism, and you can bet the other animation companies are already hard at work competing with the new higher standard The Polar Express‘ technological advances have set. The bar has been raised once more, and we can expect to see many more films taking advantage of this new technology.

With it’s great new animation technique and it’s heartwarming Christmas storyline, The Polar Express is well worth your time this Holiday season. You may want to pick up a copy to own as it’s sure to be part of your Holiday traditions for many years to come.

But be warned: make sure you get the 2-disc version. The single-disc version only includes the theatrical trailer, while the 2-disc version is packed full of extras that seem to be worth watching. Alas, as we rented this from Blockbuster®, we only got to see the single-disc version.

That will soon change, however, as we have already added The Polar Express (the 2-disc version, of course) onto our list of must-own DVDs.

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