Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks appear to have taken an ambitious misstep. Straining with all the elaborate new-fangled wizardry at its disposal to become an instant Christmas classic steeped in old-fashioned storybook charm. Warner release is strictly for young children and looks unlikely to challenge Disney/Pixar's "The Incredibles."

Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks come as close to commercial infallibility as seems possible in Hollywood, but appear to have taken an ambitious misstep with “The Polar Express.” Straining with all the elaborate new-fangled wizardry at its disposal to become an instant Christmas classic steeped in old-fashioned storybook charm, this visually impressive yet emotional frigid fable could perhaps more accurately be tagged “The Bipolar Express.” While certain to draw attention with its groundbreaking “performance capture” animation technique, which brings CGI technology one step closer to the still-elusive goal of photoreal digital humans, the Warner release is strictly for young children and looks unlikely to challenge Disney/Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” opening five days before it. As with most Christmas-themed American pics, overseas prospects are shaky, with longterm ancillary life as a holiday item more promising.

Given that this $165 million gamble is more interesting as a technical achievement than as storytelling, there is additional curiosity value in its IMAX 3D release, which will occur simultaneously on Nov. 10 with the standard-print rollout. Even on a regular screen, the action often displays a tangible, at times visceral 3D quality, so the giant screen format and immersion in the action may help give the unsatisfying film more audience immediacy and excitement.

While digital animation has made considerable strides in the past decade, the trick of creating emotionally vivid, realistic human characters has yet to be achieved. Pixar’s “Toy Story” movies got by with peripherally featured humans, but attempts to move beyond that, like Sony’s 2001 interactive computer game-derived “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” have been cold and distancing.

“The Polar Express” may succeed via the motion-capture process in replicating human movement by digitalizing the performances of live actors, but it fails to capture the subtlety of facial expressions or to fabricate sympathetic, evocative figures, particularly of the children that are key to this adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s beloved fairy tale.

In fact, the three dead-eyed tykes who lead the action here resemble nothing so much as Stepford children, giving the film an at times creepy feel, amplified in the later reels by spindly, hyperactive elves (who perform stereotypical Jewish shtick, including Yiddish) and a Santa who descends on the North Pole town square like some kind of yuletide Mussolini hitting Piazza Venezia.

Adding to the emotional remoteness of the three kids is the fact they don’t have names. While small children are perhaps less likely than adults to find the strange unintended subtext of the film off-putting, it’s hard to imagine them empathizing much with such stock figures: a middle-class boy from suburban Middle America in whom the first signs of doubt about the existence of Santa Claus have begun to manifest themselves; a smart black girl with incipient leadership qualities; and a poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks, whom Christmas has always passed by.

Story opens on Christmas Eve with the principal character (based on Hanks’ movements, with voice work by Daryl Sabara) struggling to overcome his excitement and get to sleep. When he does doze off, the boy is awakened by a massive steam train, thundering to a halt in the snow outside his house. Heading outside to investigate, he’s instructed to board by the fatherly conductor (Hanks again, doing physical and vocal double-duty in this and a number of other roles), before the train pulls out for the North Pole.

On the train, the boy meets and befriends a girl (Nona Gaye), one of many children clad in pajamas and slippers. Of all the kids, only two are given a discernible personality — the girl and a know-it-all dweeb (Eddie Deezen) determined to be chosen by Santa to receive the first gift.

The train makes a final pre-destination stop to pick up a lonely boy (Peter Scolari, voiced by Jimmy Bennett) outside his rundown home, but the kid is too shy to hang with the pack, slinking away to an adjoining carriage to make the trip alone.

While the story chronicles the kids’ journey toward life lessons — the importance of friendship, courage, magic, trust or simply belief in the spirit of Christmas — there’s surprisingly little flesh on the narrative bones. Instead, action covers a series of brushes with danger that create the illusion of a propulsive narrative but never really develop into a satisfying fable.

The main girl’s momentary loss of her train ticket prompts a hair-raising scramble along the roof of the moving train where a hobo (Hanks) camps out; a mass caribou crossing brings the engine to a screeching halt just in time; the iced-over tracks send the train sliding out of control, narrowly avoiding catastrophe when the ice cracks.

Where the train’s arrival at the North Pole should bring a wide-eyed sense of enchantment, it instead ushers in more boisterous action without getting any closer to the heart and spirit of the characters. The lonely kid’s excitement at finding a gift addressed to him is put on hold when the leading trio come adrift from the pack.

Passing through a Fritz Lang-ian world of cavernous halls, factories and conveyor belts, they end up on a mountain of presents elevated by hot-air balloon over a main square teeming with thousands of acrobatic, bouncing elves, all awaiting the arrival of Santa (Hanks, of course), who will give the chosen child any gift he desires.

There’s a curious lack of the quintessential characteristics of wonderment, joy and childhood reaffirmation that might have made the completion of the kids’ journey of self-discovery register with more emotional warmth. Despite unrelenting use of an aggressively heart-tugging score by Alan Silvestri, the story merely plays out as an inflated spectacle with not much to tell.

Voice work is of secondary importance here to the visual action, much of which is exhilaratingly muscular and rich in movement. The ice episode is spectacularly illustrated, as is the dizzying flight of the girl’s lost ticket, snatched up by an eagle and then let loose again to flutter back down to the train.

The story’s imposing landscape of snow-covered mountains, vast plains, thick forests and skies electrified by the Arctic lights is faithful to the style of Van Allsburg’s illustrations and often exhibits the painterly look of vintage children’s books.

This goes some way toward supplying the charm and depth missing in the characters or even the animals (the sleigh-pulling reindeer look as wooden as carousel horses). Ultimately, it’s the more traditional animation that remains the most captivating.

The most imaginative sequence involves refreshments being served on the train by a troupe of tapdancing waiters and cartwheeling chefs, one of a handful of musical numbers by Silvestri and songwriter-producer Glen Ballard, interspersed with a sprinkling of traditional holiday songs. One of the original tunes, “Rockin’ on Top of the World,” has Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler lending his rubber-lipped image to an elf singer during a celebratory North Pole midnight Christmas concert, although song is cut away from almost as soon as it begins.

The film is dedicated to the memory of actor Michael Jeter, who worked with Hanks on “The Green Mile,” and who died in March after completing voice work on “Polar Express” as both the engine driver and stoker.

The Polar Express

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Castle Rock Entertainment presentation in association with Shangri-La Entertainment of a Playtone, ImageMovers/Golden Mean production. Produced by Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Gary Goetzman, William Teitler. Executive producers, Tom Hanks, Jack Rapke, Chris Van Allsburg. Co-producer, Steven Boyd. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay, Zemeckis, William Broyles, Jr. based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor; widescreen), Don Burgess, Robert Presley; editors, Jeremiah O'Driscoll, R. Orlando Duenas; music, Alan Silvestri; original songs, Glen Ballard, Silvestri; production designers, Rick Carter, Doug Chiang; art directors, Alicia Maccarone, Norman Newberry, Tony Fanning, James Hegedus; set decorator, Karen O'Hara; costume designer, Joanna Johnston; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), William B. Kaplan; sound designer, Randy Thom; senior visual effects supervisors, Ken Ralston, Jerome Chen; visual effects producer, Craig Sost; digital producer, Chris Juen; animation supervisor, David Schaub; digital effects supervisors, Rob Bredow, Mark Lambert, Alberto Menache, Sean Phillips; character designer, Vladimir Todorov; choreography, John Carrafa; associate producers, Debbie Denise, Peter Tobyansen, Josh McLaglen; second unit director, Steve Starkey; assistant director, Josh McLaglen; casting, Victoria Burrows, Scot Boland. Reviewed at Time Warner screening room, New York, Oct. 21, 2004. (In Chicago Film Festival--closing night.) Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Hero Boy/Father/Conductor/Hobo/Scrooge/Santa Claus - Tom Hanks Smokey/Steamer - Michael Jeter Hero Girl - Nona Gaye Lonely Boy - Peter Scolari Know-it-All - Eddie Deezen Elf General - Charles Fleischer Elf Lieutenant/Elf Singer - Steven Tyler Sister Sarah/Mother - Leslie Zemeckis Voice performers: Hero Boy - Daryl Sabara Smokey/Steamer - Andre Sogliuzzo Lonely Boy - Jimmy Bennett Sister Sarah - Isabella Peregrina

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