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Monday, November 15, 2004 - Page updated at 11:55 A.M.
By Moira Macdonald
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 ... ?")
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.
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 email@example.com
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