Director Robert Zemekis’ “The Polar Express” takes author Chris Van Allsburg’s award-winning children’s book of the same name, and ruins all that is meaningful and heart felt about the story. Van Allsburg won the Caldecott Medal for his book for the warm holiday story, and its beautifully drawn pictures. Suprisingly, it is for those reasons that Zemekis’ film does not work
A young boy lies awake in his bed on Christmas Eve waiting to hear Santa’s sleigh bells, but knows he will not hear them because he no longer believes in Christmas. He does however, want to believe. When a train pulls in front of his house, he is reluctant to get on, but hops aboard as the train pulls away. The Conductor explains that the train is on its way to the North Pole.
On the train, the young boy, whom the credits call Hero Boy, meets other children. Hero Girl, voiced by Nona Gaye (“The Matrix Reloaded”), Lonely Boy and Know-It-All Boy are three children who stay with Hero Boy on his adventure. It is never explained why Hero Girl or Know-It-All Boy are chosen to board the Polar Express, but the movie hints that Lonely Boy has never had a fulfilling holiday.
After a series of pointless adventures with monotonous music, the train makes it to the North Pole, which is home to millions of scary male elves who appear to be living in apartment complexes. Santa Claus makes a brief appearance when he gives out the annual first-gift of Christmas to a child he chooses. Hero Boy goes home remembering that “Sometimes the most important things are the things you cannot see.”
Although Van Allsburg’s underlying story remains intact, Zemekis’ first problem is the use of CGI (Computer Generated Images). In a technique called Performance Capture, each actor wears a special suit equipped with sensors. As many as 150 sensors are clustered throughout an actor’s body, including the face and scalp. The actor then delivers a performance as if on a stage. Performance Capture is designed to collect every movement of an actor and convert it into a digitized animation.
A similar technique called Motion Capture was used on Andy Serkis for the character Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Performance Capture is different however, because it places the sensors above the neck.
Performance Capture falls short in “The Polar Express,” making the characters appear stiff and unanimated. Zemekis would have been better off using either live action, or waited until the technology becomes more advanced.
The first voice heard in “The Polar Express” is Tom Hanks. He voices five different characters throughout the film, including The Conductor and Santa Claus. Hanks’ distinctive voice is easy to hear in each of the characters, making them hard to take seriously. Instead of making Santa appear lovable and heart warming, the combination of CGI and Hanks’ throaty voice make Santa appear creepy.
Although there are a number of magical messages, such as “The spirit of Christmas lies in your heart” and “Seeing is believing,” they do not make up for the stiff movements, the untalented voices and the lack of heart felt moments.
“The Polar Express” is not worth seeing in theaters. If there is a desire to see the movie at all, wait for it to come to DVD.