Just like “It’s A Wonderful Life” is shown on TV every year, “The Polar Express” should appear in IMAX theaters that traditionally. As if 3D hasn’t already proven its worth in IMAX, “The Polar Express” fully breaks the wall of separation between the audience and the screen and places the movie right in front of our faces, so much so that when the camera hovered above the sleeping face of Hero Boy (body movements by Tom Hanks, voice by Daryl Sabara), there were slight, almost uncomfortable laughs peppered throughout the audience of my screening, because no one was used to being that close, seeing so much detail on the boy’s face.
That’s what makes “The Polar Express” ripe with such magic, such fun, and such great effects. Those who have read the book by Chris Van Allsburg know partially what they’re in for, but have never envisioned it like this. The famed train pulls up to the boy’s house and snow flurries up right in front of our faces. A musical number involving hot chocolate, complete with effort-filled vocals by Hanks, has waiters jumping up, down, and all around, pouring out the goods, as the boilers puff and puff. The story stops for the obligatory action sequences, which put the visuals to remarkably good use, as tracks turn into a veritable rollercoaster, “179-degree grade” as the Conductor (Hanks again) puts it.
The story beneath the effects involves the Hero Boy’s waning belief in Santa Claus, as he pages through an article involving his run-in with a department store Santa, whereby he pulled off the man’s beard. Therefore, it’s time for a trip on this train, where he meets Hero Girl (Nona Gaye), thoughtful, kind, who befriends him almost immediately and they soon come upon Lonely Boy (body movements of Peter Scolari, voice of Jimmy Bennett), whom doesn’t have much of a Christmas and we suspect that it’s a matter of not much coming through his place financially. Even so, it doesn’t detract from the joy found in this movie and neither do the facial movements that so many other reviews have constantly reported on.
True that the faces don’t quite have the fluid movements that are usually expected from human characters (sometimes unfairly), but here, these faces contribute to the storybook quality that “The Polar Express” exudes. These faces shine just as brightly with wonder as they would if they moved around more. As soon as more 3D effects are piled on and the personalities of the characters become clearer, all concern disappears, except towards the end where one character’s mouth doesn’t move as he’s speaking his dialogue and you half-expect him to start shaking and explode in a shower of metal pieces and wires.
There’s so much more, from the Hobo who resides on top of the train, to Santa Claus’ appearance at the North Pole and unfortunately, even Steven Tyler as an elf in an inappropriate moment, singing “Rockin’ On Top of the World”. Even so, there’s so much magic here, so much to appreciate over again, that Zemeckis has truly proven himself as a director of his own kind of magic. Whether it’s humans interacting with animated characters (done before with Jerry the Mouse and Gene Kelly, and in Mary Poppins, I know), Forrest Gump telling Kennedy that he has to pee, or even Jodi Foster ricocheting through the universe, he has it all and he uses it just like Wonka uses the treats in his candy factory.
And even if people get this movie on DVD, the IMAX Corporation would do well to have this available every year in 3D. They have finally come upon their staple film.