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Review: Polar Express

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Last night we took the kids out for a rare trip as a family to see the new G-rated film: Polar Express. I don’t remember the last G film I paid to go see because it’s been a long time but I’ve been interested in this one since seeing the early previews.

The entire movie can be told in one sentence: it’s about a boy who gets on a train that rides to the North Pole and Santa picks out a toy for each child. It is centered around the power of believing in the magic of Christmas which is something that sooner or later, people grow up and lose.

It is based largely on the 32-page children’s picture book by Chris Van Allsburg, but extra content and padding needed to be added by Back To The Future director Robert Zemeckis to fill a full-length movie. Along the way there is some interesting visuals which made this viewer sometimes forget he was watching an animated film. Some of the film is very realistic looking. Cartoons have come a long ways since the days of the Flintstones and Scooby-Doo when I grew up.

Most of the action scenes in the film center around the train ride. For example, there’s a scene where the train is going up and down steep areas with a very roller coaster feel to it. A New York Times review called this cheap video game tricks, but I liked these parts of the film, as they held a sense of wonder and glee to which overall seemed a bit too dark visually.

The sounds were well done, offering solid compliment to the overall film. There were a couple of musical scenes, one involving some hot chocolate that was particularly fun to watch and listen to, but this isn’t a musical.

Tom Hanks does the voice acting for multiple characters, including the story narrator, and he does an admirable job with an intentionally simplistic storyline. An reported $270 million was spent to make and market Polar Express, and therefore it’s a major financial risk for the studio and their new “performance capture” technology used to make the film. I think the technology is cool, but it leaves the characters looking something like an eerie cross between real people and cartoons and I don’t know how that will play out in holiday films. Maybe this technology would be better for stories like The Cat in the Hat.

Our youngest child enjoyed this movie (age 11) but it didn’t get positive reviews from our 14 year old or 13 year old, the older of which saw some teen girls he knew from school in the theater and seemed ashamed to admit he was at this movie with his family. In retrospect I don’t blame him for his embarassment.

Overall, I’d say Polar Express is good for younger children (11 and under) as there is a sweet, although somewhat cliched Christmas oriented plotline and the overall visuals reminded me a bit of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Alas, I’m not sure if the 270+ million dollars was really worth it. Perhaps the wonderful children’s picture book this movie is based upon would be a better gift for a younger child?

I can’t bag too much on holiday family films like this without feeling Scrooge-like, so I’ll just go up the middle with this rating. And yeah, it’s the coward’s way out as a reviewer, I know, but I enjoy Christmas time and snow and giving presents — ho, ho, ho! I feel as guilty about this movie review as I do with those Salvation Army bell ringers in front of stores when I don’t have any spare change to put in their donation cans (and incidentally, bells do play an important part in Polar Express).

When the inevitable time comes I’d imagine Polar Express will look and play as cool as a snowy evening on a progressive scan DVD player and skeptical viewers may want to wait for a Christmas DVD release because I don’t think Polar Express will last all that long in theaters. We’ll see.

This might explain why they released it so early, so that if it did indeed tank in the theaters then they could rush it out there as a DVD right at Christmas time to help recover the expensive production costs. Grade: C

This review, in part, originally appeared at makeyougohmm.com

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