Truly worthy adaptations are a rare feat. The transformation of
ink on paper to the silver screen is a challenging task that many
filmmakers have attempted and few have pulled off well. They pander
to mainstream demands and cripple the film with extraneous elements
that are irrelevant or contradictory to the book. “The Polar
Express,” originally a 32-paged illustrated children’s
book by University alum Chris Van Allsburg, succeeds where most
have failed.

Film Reviews
Maybe next year Santa will get you an Xbox instead of coal. (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

The film tells the story of a nameless young boy’s journey
to the magical land of the North Pole in order to regain his belief
in Santa Claus and the spirit of Christmas. Along the way, he meets
and befriends a group of other children as they continue on their
magical adventure. Director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest
Gump,” “Back to the Future”) masterfully adapts
the book into a fully computer animated feature film while staying
true to Van Allsburg’s timeless tale.

The most distinctive aspect of the film is its breathtaking
visuals that rival the technological innovation of 2001’s
failed venture, “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.” On
an estimated $150 million budget, “The Polar Express”
is the first film that allows actors to fully act out their scenes
that were later digitized. This allows for a far more emotionally
engaged performance that Pixar and Dreamworks are still not able to
achieve. Robert Zemeckis’s creativity is apparent from the
design of the North Pole and its fanciful functions, neither of
which were extensively described by the author. Zemeckis did,
however, keep true to the book’s beautiful artwork. Each
frame, along with Alan Silvestri’s surprisingly catchy score,
perfectly captures the vibrancy and surrealism that distinguish Van
Allsburg from the ranks of other children’s authors.

In a rare achievement, Tom Hanks plays more than half the
characters in the movie — much like Mike Myers in the
“Austin Powers” films. He is the Conductor, Santa
Claus, the Hobo, the nameless young boy and the boy’s father.
He plays all of the characters with the delightfully charming Hanks
touch.

To expand the storybook into a 100-minute movie, Zemeckis adds a
series of original action sequences and pleasant illustrations of
characters. The challenges of adapting such a short book into a
film are present in the extended detours from the story’s
original plot, but Zemeckis’s innovative direction
compensates for this drawback. The additional material in the film
does not seem out of place or drawn out. These scenes, though
supplementary, stay true to the context of the book and often offer
greater insight into the characters and, in the case of the North
Pole, its grand composition. As the children explore the North
Pole, the audience is given a glimpse into a magical world where
cozy Victorian architecture intermingles with modern technological
advancements. Children will marvel at the way Santa and the elves
fit all the toys into one sleigh. For the scene in which Santa
embarks on his world-wide journey, Zemeckis brings Van
Allsburg’s already vivid description to life with a warm and
engaging ambiance.

“The Polar Express” is truly a film for a younger
audience craving to see a classic story on the big screen. But
parents will also leave this film with smiles on their faces and
Christmas in their hearts.

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

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