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Monday, November 15, 2004 - Page updated at 11:55 A.M.

Movie Review
Hark! Pure heart beats under "Polar Express" hype

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

In "The Polar Express," based on a popular children's book, a young boy takes a train journey to the North Pole and re-discovers the magic of Christmas.
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A generation of kids has grown up with Chris Van Allsburg's book "The Polar Express," a gentle, magical tale of a little boy who re-discovers the magic of Christmas by taking a nighttime ride to the North Pole on a snowy Christmas Eve. Beautifully illustrated with rich, quiet colors, its message of belief — not just in Santa Claus and magic, but in the goodness that can fill our hearts at that time of year — has genuine poignancy, made all the more touching by the simplicity of the writing.

So it's understandable that those who love the book might worry upon hearing the news that it's become a heavily marketed Hollywood production, with a vast budget ($165 million, according to Entertainment Weekly). And eyebrows may have been raised at the constant trumpeting of the film's fancy-schmancy animation techniques such as "performance capture," in which wetsuited actors cavort for the cameras with jewel-like markers stuck all over their bodies and faces, in order to create a 3D-like virtual representation. (Jolly as all of this sounds, you wonder what was going through the actors' minds. Something along the lines of "I went to Juilliard for this ... ?")

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"The Polar Express," featuring the voices of Tom Hanks, Michael Jeter, Peter Scolari, Nona Gaye, Eddie Deezen, Charles Fleisher. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, from a screenplay by Zemeckis and William Broyles Jr., based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg. 100 minutes. Rated G. Several theaters.
But none of this technology will matter a whit to those who love the book. The real question is: Does the heart of "The Polar Express" find its way to the screen, chugging along on all that machinery? The answer, happily, is yes. Robert Zemeckis' film, co-written by Zemeckis and William Broyles Jr., has a genuine warmth and sweetness to it. It's not ideal — the animated human characters look decidedly odd at times, and Alan Silvestri's gooey songs bring the movie to a screeching halt — but the visual effects are at times breathtaking (as when a sea of elves tosses hats in the air, like floating bits of candy canes), and the story's gentle message shines through.

The movie begins quietly, with a lovely snow-laden street, and this is our first hint that Zemeckis understands the story's appeal — there's nothing quieter than a middle-of-the-night Christmas Eve when you can't sleep, straining for the sound of sleighbells. Our nameless hero (a boy of perhaps 10) lies in bed, wondering if Santa Claus really exists, wondering if the magic of Christmas has ended. Then a sound awakens him, and out he goes into the snow to find a glowing train, long and lit from within, in front of his house, and a mustached conductor waving him in.

"The Polar Express" in IMAX 3D

In addition to the regular theaters, "The Polar Express" also opens today at the Boeing IMAX Theater at Pacific Science Center, as the first feature-length film to be digitally remastered in IMAX 3D. Audience members will wear IMAX 3D headsets to watch the film on the six-stories-high screen.

For showtimes and additional information, call 206-443-IMAX or see

Filled with kids in their jammies, the train is headed for the North Pole, where it finds Santa and millions of elves, marching in their cherry-red suits, ready for the big night. Along the way, our hero learns a few lessons in bravery and friendship, from a brave girl and a sad, lonely boy. Was it all a dream? Maybe ... except for the present under the Christmas tree of a silver bell, with a delicate peal that only children can hear.

Zemeckis and Broyles have opened out the slim book, as is necessary — new characters have been created, new perils have been added along the way, and the elves have been given some shtick ("Put him on the check-twice list for next year," advises one, considering the name of someone who's been naughty). Tom Hanks, voicing all the major roles, shows his usual versatility; the Conductor, in particular, has an audible twinkle in his eye.

There are moments in "The Polar Express" where you can tell that this is new technology, not yet entirely worked out; some of the children move with strangely bobbling heads, and a few of the roller-coasterish train scenes seem not fully sketched in. But its heart is in the right place, and its bell should ring for many enchanted children in its audience.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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