WB’s polar-coaster ride

Film has implications far beyond box office

There’s plenty riding on “The Polar Express,” but reactions across the board have been, well, polarized.

Castle Rock and Warner Bros. need to do major business on the $170 million gamble to see light at the end of the tunnel. And the pic, which opened Wednesday Nov. 10, is stirring up a lot of Thursday-morning quarterbacking.

Aside from the divergent reviews and less-than-impressive early B.O., industryites are wondering about the ramifications for the new technology, for investor Steve Bing and for WB.

Director Robert Zemeckis is already in production on another pic with “performance capture” pioneers ImageMovers; this one, with Amblin Prods., is “Monster House” for Columbia Pictures.

Bing, filmmaker-philanthropist and motion-capture backer, has $80 million of his own money riding on “Polar.” Which, any way you look at it, is a trainload of cash.

WB is hoping this film is a little engine that could, and that the pic enjoys a long shelf life.

But it’s an uphill climb. WB opened the pic just five days after Pixar/Disney’s computer-animated “The Incredibles,” which had a $70.7 million opening weekend and shows signs of legs, luring in both kiddies and their folks.

“Incredibles” also had glowing reviews and “Polar” had … some great ones. Roger Ebert & Richard Roeper said “Polar” has “Wizard of Oz” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”-like potential as an annual classic.

On the other hand, Variety called it “unpleasant” and said Santa Claus’s climactic entrance to the North Pole town square is “like some kind of Yuletide Mussolini hitting Piazza Venezia.”

The New York Times instead said the entrance is reminiscent of “Hitler’s Nuremberg rally.”

To the Times, the film was a “grave and disappointing failure” in which Santa’s bulging goody bag looks akin to an “airborne scrotum.”

A Village Voice review pointed out that “Polar” features “oddly, Yiddish-using” elves.

Warners prexy-chief operating officer Alan Horn weighed in on the elves’ possible ancestry, telling Variety: “Zemeckis thought it’d be funny to do the East Coast accents. They’re not supposed to be any ethnic persuasion, they’re just New Yorkers or from New Jersey, East Coast.”

To be sure, “Polar” isn’t the type of project that needs critics’ approval to roll to major B.O. coin: The pic is based on the megapopular kids’ book by Chris Van Allsburg.

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