By Jeff Westover
They say there are four stages you go through in life: you believe in Santa, you don't believe in Santa, you believe in Santa again, and you look like Santa. Funny though that may be, there is an element of truth in the ageless conflict we all face when it comes to devotion to Santa Claus.
The Polar Express examines that conflict in the heart of a little boy and it does it in style. From the opening moments of the movie the viewer feasts on stunning visual images, outrageous sound effects and a stirring score. It's too bad they had to mess all that up with a story line that veered too far from the original children's book and too far into what is sure to be a best selling video game. By the time the movie ends you are not quite sure if the kid believes in Santa or not -- and you're not convinced that you should believe in him any more either.
Robert Zemekis, who brought us such favorites as Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, tells this story with typical Hollywood bravado. There are fantastic clashes, brushes with death, scores of extras, glorious choirs and dazzling special effects. But lost on the makers of this film was this pertinent detail: it is a simple story. Any parent who has shared the book with a child knows that the appeal came from the message -- and the artwork -- in the book. The movie gave us the artwork but it lost the story and the message it carries somewhere in a cloud of pixel-dust.
The story centers around a nameless little boy fighting belief in The Big Guy. As he drifts off to sleep on Christmas Eve he is awakened by the arrival of The Polar Express, a train on its way to the North Pole carrying a cast of non-believers to see what happens there on Christmas Eve. The boy hops on board and begins a Christmas adventure where the magic fades with each passing mile. By the time we see the North Pole, the magic of Santa and the message of giving is reduced once again by Hollywood's shallow interpretation of who Santa Claus is and how he works.
The North Pole ends up being a dark place populated by mostly empty-headed, smart-alecky elves blindly devoted to an imposing and even threatening figure in Santa. Mr. Claus talks his way out of these cold perceptions, of course. But the overall package is one the little boy and, ultimately, the audience has a hard time swallowing.
Those who know the book know the moral of the story. But those who see the movie have to endure a series of heartless scenes that do little to develop the depth of the boy's conflict or just what needs to be done to resolve it. Instead, you find yourself hoping the journey will just hurry up and end.
Tom Hanks, who helped to produce the project, inexplicably plays six different roles: the boy, the narrator, the father, the hobo, the conductor and Santa Claus (although in Santa's role he sounds like he's on a serious dose of Valium). I love Tom Hanks and see just about everything he does. But how much Tom Hanks does a movie need? Was this a move of budgetary necessity or merely a device to stroke the ego? I doubt it was either. Regardless of the real reason, the gimmick leaves one wondering which new character will sound like Tom Hanks with another goofy accent. It proved to be an unnecessary distraction.
Unlike other abysmal holiday failures of recent years (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, The Santa Clause II, and Jingle All the Way), The Polar Express is a revered story and has enough polish to make it watchable. Just lower your expectations. It is not the perennial holiday classic the studios are touting it to be.