There comes a time in every child's life, usually just before they reach double-digits, when a certain amount of innocence is stolen from them. The thief isn't necessarily another person so much as it is the cruel hands of time, experience, and acquired cynicism. When this occurs, the world somehow seems colder, more painful, and less a place where anything seems possible. This very time is captured with stunning, beautiful simplicity in "The Polar Express," a timeless motion picture so close to perfection that, yes, it ranks alongside 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" and 1971's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" as one of the very best family films I have had the fortune of seeing.
Writer-director Robert Zemeckis and co-screenwriter William Broyles Jr., who previously collaborated on 2000's remarkable "Cast Away
," have struck gold once more. Based on the much-loved 1985 children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, "The Polar Express" stays true to its source material, going so far as to bringing that book's indelible illustrations to vibrant life, while elaborating on its emphatic, truthful ideas and themes. Inasmuch as a cinematic venture can be, "The Polar Express" is unforgettable and definitely one-of-a-kind, a Christmas-set tale that encompasses the holiday to speak to everyone of all ages about the frailty of childhood and the natural progression of life and one's own being.
With the night before Christmas well on its way, Hero Boy (voiced by Daryl Sabara) lays in his bed and attempts to go to sleep. He is at that critical age in which he has begun to seriously question whether Santa Claus is real or not, and somehow the excited anticipation he once had for the impending holiday has begun to dim. And then, out of the dark, cold night and through the blanket of gently falling snow, Hero Boy is awoken by a train outside his home called the Polar Express. Hopping onboard via a round trip ticket given to him by the forthright conductor (Tom Hanks), Hero Boy soon joins a group of children around his age, including Hero Girl (Nona Gaye) and Lonely Boy (Jimmy Bennett), as the train sets off for the North Pole.
"The Polar Express" is an endlessly magical experience, sure to join the company of 1946's "It's a Wonderful Life," 1983's "A Christmas Story," and 1989's "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" in the years to come as a perennial Christmas classic. And, as a film truly meant for the entire family to enjoy and embrace, one couldn't ask for a movie more pure and genuine. There are no talking animals, no comic relief sidekicks, and not a single fart joke in sight. In their place, director Robert Zemeckis allows his virtuoso strength in storytelling, unfettered and mesmerizing, to entrance viewers and involve them in Hero Boy's journey toward rediscovering his spirit of the holidays.
"The Polar Express" also stands as a watermark in animation and computer wizardry. Using a cutting-edge technique never used before in film to this capacity known as motion capturing, Zemeckis filmed his actors with motion detectors placed on their bodies. Once complete, he was able to fully animate them and create their surroundings with computer animation and visual effects courtesy of Sony Imageworks. The results, allowing the characters' movements to mimic that of actual people and bringing to life a visual landscape that looks both real and gloriously picturesque, are state-of-the-art.
As the train chugs its way through the wintry night to reach its hidden location, traveling up mountains, down cliffs, through caves, past bridges, and even across a frozen lake, the images radiate off the screen with awe-inspiring wonder and resplendent beauty. One unbroken scene, free of edits, follows an escaped ticket through the arctic wilderness and finally back to the moving train. It is roughly three minutes of sheer brilliance in a treasure of a movie overflowing with such moments of amazement and wonder. Once the train reaches its destination at the North Pole about an hour in, the film once again surprises and surpasses expectations by taking the lead children and by-now friends on a grandiose adventure of their own that is best left to be individually discovered.
The performances and voice work is superlative, with Tom Hanks (2004's "The Ladykillers
") taking on a number of dual roles, the stern but caring train conductor and mystical hobo living on top of the locomotive being the most memorable. Daryl Sabara (2003's "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over
") is just right as the voice of Hero Boy, bringing equal measures of skepticism and ruminative wonderment to the part. Also of note is the lovely work from Nona Gaye (2003's "The Matrix Revolutions
") as Hero Girl, Jimmy Bennett (2003's "Daddy Day Care
") as the voice of Lonely Boy, and, in his final film role, the late, great Michael Jeter (2003's "Open Range
") as train engineers Smokey and Steamer.
With a hypnotic music score by Alan Silvestri (2004's "Van Helsing
") and a number of Christmas favorites sublimely complimenting the Yuletide action onscreen, "The Polar Express" may have the power to reinvigorate one's own faith and ability to believe in the unexpected just as it does for Hero Boy, Lonely Boy, and the rest of the children onboard. And, as with any great family film, there is an underlying level of foreboding, as in the train compartment littered with rotting, thrown-away toys and a walk through the desolate streets and alley ways of the North Pole village, that touches upon childhood fears while putting them to rest. "The Polar Express" is, at once, vastly entertaining, joyfully imaginative, visually astounding, emotionally resonant, and, finally, deeply poignant. Both a personal work of art and one for the ages, if a better motion picture is to be released all year, I have not yet seen it. In a single word, "The Polar Express" is a masterpiece.