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One-man show offers little joy

DAN THOMAS
Special to the DailyDan Thomas
ALL |

“The Polar Express” is as familiar and comforting as a pair of warm socks under the Christmas tree – and about as exciting.

The big-screen adaptation of Christopher Van Allsburg’s children’s book delivers its freight of Christmas eye candy right on schedule. While it chugs predictably through a spectacular computer-generated landscape over its hour and 50 minutes, it lacks many hallmarks of good holiday movies – such as a sense of wonder or, really, any human emotion. Nor does it contain any of the things that make straight-up kids movies palatable to adults – say, a sly sense of humor that pitches part of a joke over the kids’ heads.Perhaps part of the reason “The Polar Express” seems so alien is its superb, otherworldly look, which animators crafted around Tom Hanks and other human actors. It’s not as creepy as I thought it would be – the previews reminded me of those cringe-inducing early-90s Energizer battery commercials. But even given the textured skin and hairstyles of the characters, there’s something about them that doesn’t look quite human, and I can’t put my finger on what it is. I mean, obviously, the Simpsons have four fingers per hand and their skin is bright yellow – which, to be fair, describes a fair number of people I’ve met back home in the moonshine country of Virginia and North Carolina – but they almost seem more realistic than the hyper-animated children of “The Polar Express.”

The point of all the gee-whiz technology is a Christmas story about believing in Santa, but it might as well be about believing in CGI animation, because the breathtaking scenery is far more compelling than the plot or the beautifully rendered but cardboard-boring characters.

I think that’s one of the reasons it’s hard to forge a connection with “The Polar Express,” which makes the allegedly thrilling parts of the titular train’s trip to the North Pole far less intense. It probably doesn’t help that none of the characters seems to have a name – the Internet Movie Database, for example, calls the main character “Hero Boy.”You could also build a pretty compelling case that the format hamstrings Hanks, who’s made moviegoers empathize with everything from a castaway who converses with a bloody volleyball to a rent-control cross-dresser. Except for the return of Hanks’ “Bosom Buddies” costar Peter Scolari and a few other parts, “The Polar Express” is almost a one-man show for Hanks – but one that doesn’t give viewers a character to hang onto. And the mysterious hobo who well might hold the secret of Christmas looks a lot more like John Malkovich anyway – which would, at least, make things more interesting than a pair of socks.


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