With The Incredibles performing superheroically at the box office, I hope that kids from one to 92 will find the time to climb aboard The Polar Express, Robert Zemeckis' adaptation of the Caldecott Medal-winning children's book by Chris Van Allsburg. Personally, I'd prefer that Christmas movies not come out until I'm through eating Halloween candy, but it wasn't long before this one had me in the holiday spirit. At once old-fashioned and new-fashioned, it uses cutting-edge technology to tell a story that seems as old as Santa Claus himself. And although I'm getting a little tired of reading about the latest developments in computer-generated imagery, The Polar Express does mark a breakthrough of sorts, if not a culmination. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is as close as a movie has ever gotten to reproducing the visual enchantment of a classic storybook.
The storybook in question, which Van Allsburg published in 1985, only has about a thousand words of text. What's ushered it into the kid-lit pantheon are the pictures - carefully rendered oil-pastel paintings that create soft, warm pools of light amid a hard, cold winter's night. The mood is surprisingly melancholy, seeping into the bones of a young boy who's having a crisis of faith regarding a certain white-haired gentleman. And it's that young boy - not quite a cartoon, not quite a live actor, something in between - who gives us our first look at the future of movies. We're used to computer-generated characters, after Toy Story and Shrek, but we're not used to computer-generated human characters. And despite a little herky-jerkiness in their movements and a certain glassiness in their eyes, the human characters in The Polar Express have a captivating life of their own.
Tom Hanks, who plays five roles, did the lion's share of the "acting," which involves performing in a bare room with reflective markers attached all over your body and face. The movements and expressions are recorded by digital cameras, then downloaded into a computer, after which they can be fed into a rendering of your own body or someone else's. Meryl Streep can now play Abraham Lincoln, as Hanks has been pointing out in interviews. But I wonder whether we aren't getting a little ahead of ourselves. Hanks' performances in The Polar Express - as the boy, the boy's father, the train's conductor, a hobo and Santa Claus - are enjoyable mostly for the traces of Hanks we perceive in them, not for the subtlety of his acting. There's an animatronic stiffness in all these "performance-capture" characters that will surely be smoothed out over the next several years, not that it hurts this particular movie.
In fact, I think it helps this particular movie, keeps it safely within the realm of make-believe. With a whole movie to fill, Zemeckis and co-scriptwriter William Broyles Jr. have had to flesh out Van Allsburg's text. Many of the additions are nice, and at least one - a lost train ticket that goes on an amazing journey before winding up more or less where it started - is nothing short of magical. After an admirably slow start that's very much in the spirit of Van Allsburg's book, the movie starts pouring on the steam, literally turning into a roller-coaster ride. And there are perhaps too many harrowing adventures that test the young boy's mettle and an older critic's patience. But The Polar Express, for all its flaws, has something of the instant classic about it, including scenes that kids will remember for a long time. Zemeckis brings both motion and emotion to objects that exist only in a computer somewhere - a moving picture in more ways than one.