red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen



The Polar Express

Cast: Tom Hanks, Michael Jeter, Nona Gaye, at least 30 children
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Theatrical release: 2004; available on DVD

Chris Van Allsburg's 1985 book, winner of the Caldecott Medal in children's literature, is the basis for this computer-animated film that relies on the latest in motion-capture technology to create its characters. Van Allsburg's artwork provides the look and feel, while director Zemeckis, hyper-actor Hanks, and the computer animators use their magic to enlarge the scenery and action.

The story of the book and film deals with that tenuous time in childhood when we each decide whether or not we really believe in Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, as our main character struggles with the question, he is whisked away to the North Pole by a steam train — The Polar Express — that pulls up right outside the front door of his house. On the train and at the North Pole, he encounters other children, an all-knowing conductor, millions of elves, and the Big Guy in the Red Suit himself.

The film expands a couple of sections of the book — the train trip and the time at the North Pole — that lend themselves to big productions. The film uses several musical numbers, including "Hot Chocolate," a song-and-dance extravaganza. And a run across a frozen-but-thawing lake has the train acting more like a Dukes-of-Hazzard fish-tailing race car than anything a real locomotive would do.

At the North Pole — not just a chalet in the woods but a real industrial center with millions of elves — toy production lines, conveyor belts, and chutes and ladders present another adventure for the wondering children. It's all part of the magic. Ultimately, the question remains, do you believe? And Josh Groban sings the melodic end-title song extolling the benefits of that state of mind.

The DVD comes in several versions, at least one as a 'gift set' with a toy train. The second disc in a two-disc package contains the bonus features you might expect, including "Making of..." features that explain the motion-capture technology, a profile of author/artist Van Allsburg, a concert performance of "Believe" by Josh Groban, and a Polar Express game for Windows users. (Sorry, Mac fans.) No matter which version you choose — or even if you just rent/buy/stream the movie alone, you'll find a good holiday.

So, tell me... can you hear the bell ring?


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