The umpteenth major special-effects breakthrough to arrive this year, The Polar Express brings a multitude of computer-animated Tom Hankses to the screen to spread some digitized Christmas cheer. Shot entirely in a 10'-by-10' studio space using "performance capture" technology—more or less the same technique used for Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy—the film creates a snow-covered world of Santa-worshipping elves and tireless locomotives, using elaborate artificial backdrops and human actors converted into animation via supercomputers, green screens, special cameras, and nerd sweat. As a spectacle, The Polar Express looks remarkable. As a film, however, it's the equivalent of an elaborately wrapped Christmas present containing a nice new pair of socks.
Director Robert Zemeckis co-scripted the adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's beloved children's book about a Santa-doubting boy who, on Christmas Eve, boards a mysterious train headed for the North Pole. On the journey, the boy (voiced as a child by Spy Kid Daryl Sabara and as a grown-up narrator by Hanks) meets a stern but benevolent conductor (also Hanks), a ghostly hobo (Hanks again), and, later, Santa himself (surprise guest star Tom Hanks). In a few scenes, the form and content match up nicely. As the train chugs through its icy, moonlit landscape, it captures some of the childhood captivation of long journeys and the way the world outside can look different once familiar surroundings disappear from view.
Then, as so often happens on long trips, boredom sets in. What's enthralling as a 32-page illustrated book doesn't work at feature length. Nothing much happens as the train chugs on and on through the night, and nothing much more happens once it arrives at its destination. In awe of its ability to awe, The Polar Express leans on eye-catching visuals and never finds time for drama, no matter what the over-the-top Alan Silvestri score suggests. Attempts to liven things up with comic relief from an obnoxious kid (voiced by veteran geek Eddie Deezen) fall flat, and the less said of a special appearance by rock 'n' roll elf Steven Tyler, the better.
Occasionally, even the effects let the film down. Some characters look uncannily lifelike. Others, like the hero's young friend (voiced by Nona Gaye), look uncannily like the tragic masked ghoul of Eyes Without A Face. And the moments when one character stiffly touches another create the unshakable impression of a technology whose time has not quite come, working in the service of a story that no one figured out how to tell.