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Review: The Polar Express

The film is a hollow CGI extravaganza that reduces a child’s fantasy trip to the North Pole to a roller coaster ride of excitement.

The Polar Express
Photo: Warner Bros.

In a scene from What Lies Beneath, Robert Zemeckis’s camera zooms toward Michelle Pfeiffer only to suddenly back peddle and drop into an imaginary crawlspace beneath the floorboards of her character’s house so the director can capture the actress’s face as she falls to the ground. Zemeckis has made a career out of defying reality with similar such “show me the money” aestheticizing, a synthetic approach to filmmaking that’s all over The Polar Express, a hollow CGI extravaganza that reduces a child’s fantasy trip to the North Pole to a roller coaster ride of excitement! After being picked up by the Polar Express, the film’s boy hero (voiced by Daryl Sabara) is subjected to a series of suspenseful and often frightening tests meant to scrutinize his faith in Christmas. Except there isn’t a shred of emotion to the film’s yuletide challenge, which is slightly different for the other children aboard the Polar Express, among them a po’ kid from “the wrong side of the tracks,” a soul sister who makes a creepy first impression and shares an out-of-nowhere power ballad with the poor kid, and an obnoxious know-it-all who looks like Corey Feldman and sounds like nails-on-a-chalkboard. At one point, the conductor (Tom Hanks) refers to the Polar Express as a “well-oiled machine,” a term that could also apply to this contraption of a film, which at turns suggests an Olympic-style luge event or a trip through an especially crowded FAO Schwartz. Zemeckis manages a few lovely moments (in one scene, the wind blows and makes it seem as if a snowman is waving goodbye to the film’s hero), but subtlety and grace is scarcely on the director’s agenda. Impressive as the film’s detail work may be, Polar Express’s “live action with ‘live’ action” CGI effects are more frightening than endearing, another artificial composite of the film’s “blockbuster” agenda, which engages but ultimately sugarcoats class issues and is so hell bent on selling Christmas as a suspenseful, money-minded Disney Land ride that it can scarcely be bothered to linger on the emotional effects of the endless messages it trots out like so many anonymous gifts hot off the conveyor belt at Santa’s workshop.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara, Eddie Deezen, Nona Gaye, Jimmy Bennett, Michael Jeter, Peter Scolari, Charles Fleischer, Leslie Harter Zemeckis Director: Robert Zemeckis Screenwriter: William Broyles Jr., Robert Zemeckis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 100 min Rating: G Year: 2004 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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