To kick things off, this review isn't about how children will like "The Polar Express." Sure, while adults may find it simple, boring and downright creepy, some children will find "The Polar Express" entertaining, or at least awe-inspiring, as a magical train journeys into the north pole. Unfortunately, I am not a child, and you probably aren't either - let's just say that after watching "The Polar Express" you'll want to stick in a copy of "Christmas Vacation" just to get your brain functioning again.
"The Polar Express," which of course is based on the classic child's tale by Chris Van Allsburg, follows the adventures of a boy (voiced by Tom Hanks) as he journeys to the north pole to see Santa (voiced by Tom Hanks) on a mystical steam train. The conductor (voiced by Tom Hanks) offers helpful advice along the way, but that may not be enough as the train runs into all kinds of problems that could interfere with getting everyone to Santa on time. Even when they do make it the north pole, the kids encounter more difficulties in actually making it to where they need to be on time.
Now, there's nothing wrong with a simple plot for a holiday movie. Plenty of holiday movies have simple plots. But when you take a children's book and stretch it into a full-length motion picture, you're generally going to have problems, and "The Polar Express" has many mind-numbingly long scenes where pretty much nothing happens. It's probably not fair to compare "The Polar Express" to other CGI films as this one clearly has other intentions in mind, but I'm not always fair so I'm going to compare it anyway. Compared to just about any CGI film, even some of the bad ones like "Shark Tale" (maybe not "Robots"), "The Polar Express" lacks the excitement and comedy that is necessary for any kid's "cartoon," especially one that is supposed to transcend the age line and appeal to adults as well. "The Polar Express" takes itself seriously, and really offers little in the way of comedy. That's all fine and good, but the movie never is very exciting either, even though it tries to be at times. Maybe kids will think differently, but I'm not so sure.
As for the special effects, they range from excellent to downright scary. The exterior visuals are great; led by director Robert Zemeckis, the visual effects team created compelling sets that look nearly real with just a touch of the mystical. One of the best scenes is where the stupid boy loses a girl's train ticket out the window, and we watch for several minutes as it floats throughout the wilderness and finally ends up back in the train. However, inside the train, the live-action animation of the characters is another story. Zemeckis used 3D digital motion capture to film real actors and then skin their bodies with CGI counterparts; in fact, there are no children in the movie - adults were filmed with oversized props to make them look smaller. Unfortunately, while this style adds a touch of reality to the film, it also makes things creepier, as we are essentially watching a cartoon with real people in it, and they move and look like real people - which means everything goes slower than a normal cartoon. Sometimes the body motions look odd, and the faces are where real trouble lies; again, the animation isn't bad but there is something about the faces that just doesn't work.
The voice acting also leaves little to be desired for. Tom Hanks voices most of the main characters, including the stupid boy, the conductor, a hobo who travels on the roof of the train, a Scrooge doll and Santa himself. Hanks is pretty good, but for most of his voices you can identify who it is immediately; given the stature of the book, the inclusion of a big-name star is merely distracting. However, the really obnoxious voice was by Eddie Deezen, who played the Know-It-All kid; the character was supposed to be annoying, but the voice sounded so out of place it was like nails on a chalkboard. It was a horrible casting decision.
"The Polar Express" only succeeds in that it offers up a magical train ride for young children, but all other demographics will be bored out of their mind. "The Polar Express" is a CGI cartoon, only it lacks the ingredients needed to be entertaining and successful.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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