A film by Robert Zemeckis
"The Polar Express" is based on a 29 page award winning children's book by Chris Van Allsburg. Robert Zemeckis obviously had to expand Van Allsburg's book, but he still begins with the first line of the book and ends with the last line. "The Polar Express" is animation like we have never seen before, using a movement capture technology which has advanced far beyond anything that has come before.
Hero Boy (Tom Hanks) has lost his faith in Christmas. He has told his sister that there is no Santa Claus, and while he still wants to believe that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole and delivers presents to all the good little boys and girls, he knows from his encyclopedia that the North Pole is barren with no life. He goes to sleep on Christmas Eve but is woken in the middle of the night by the sound of a train outside his window. He puts on his jacket and runs outside and sees a big train in the middle of the street with a Conductor (Tom Hanks) "all aboard!" The train, the Polar Express, is headed to the North Pole and Hero Boy is on the list of passengers. After a moment's hesitation, Hero Boy decides to take the trip.
All of the other kids on the train believe that they are truly going to the North Pole to see Santa Claus, but Hero Boy is not so sure. Despite the magic of a train pulling up to his house in the middle of the night taking him on a wonderous trip, he doesn't believe. He does befriend Hero Girl (Nona Gaye), however, and after losing her ticket by mistake, Hero Boy has a small adventure on the train trying to find the ticket and then trying to find Hero Girl.
Much of "The Polar Express" takes place on the train until it reaches the North Pole, so the scope of the adventure is small. But, this is a very visual movie and anytime the movie takes a peek outside the windows of the train it is absolutely stunning. The animation looks more than real. Everything is extra sharp and beautiful. The only trouble is with the human characters. While these are perhaps the best animated human characters (better than "Final Fantasy"), they still look a little bit creepy in the face. They move well, but their faces are not exceptionally expressive and look a bit dead at times. While the partial creepiness lasts throughout the movie, it takes a backseat to the physical beauty of the animation and the enjoyment of the movie.
The voice talent in "The Polar Express" all does a very good job. Tom Hanks, who performs as Hero Boy, The Conductor, The Hobo, Santa Claus, the Father, and Scrooge is excellent as always. Nona Gaye is perfect in her role as Hero Girl and I would suggest that she is really the backbone of the movie. We also get to see Peter Scolari (better known as the guy from "Bosom Buddies" who didn't become famous) as the Lonely Boy.
"The Polar Express" has the potential to be a perennial holiday favorite for years to come. There is a sweetness and a sadness in this story of a child that is sure to resonate with viewers. This story gets lost at times in the long, though fun, train voyage to the North Pole. This movie would, perhaps, be better suited to a shorter television special (though I can't imagine any television producer paying the money to make this movie for tv), but it works in the theatre.
By no means is this a perfect movie, and far too much attention will be paid to how much "The Polar Express" cost to make (though it will lead to further innovation and cheaper techniques for other movies to use), but this is a nice, sweet holiday movie. It is about the spirit of Christmas and holding onto that "magic" that is the belief of a child.