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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
All Aboard to Wonderment
by Diana Saenger

Playing a variety of different characters in The Polar Express, Tom Hanks eloquently brings this magical Christmas story to life while touching the hearts of young and old alike. Director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away) and Hanks both loved the popular children’s book The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg and had read it to their children many times.

The movie, written by Zemeckis and William Broyles, Jr., follows the adventure of a young boy who doubts there really is a Santa until the Polar Express stops in front of his house on Christmas Eve and offers him a trip to the North Pole. From the moment he steps on board and the delightful music score by Alan Silvestri begins, every wonderful and magical moment of childhood is on the line. The boy discovers that other children, each with unique problems, are aboard as well. The train is soon North Pole bound but not without lots of excitement and peril on the way.

In addition to highlighting a whimsical story, Zemeckis also wanted to capture the incredible artwork that makes the children’s book so vivid. “There’s something absolutely haunting about his (Van Allsburg's) artwork,” said Hanks. “It has a tactile feeling that’s really the emotion he communicates through the artwork itself.”

Academy Award-winning visual effects wizard Ken Ralston proposed using a motion capture process that digitally captures the actor’s live performance and turns it into a computerized application. The Polar Express becomes the first motion picture to use this technique for all the characters, and although it probably won’t work for every film, it’s absolutely incredible in this imaginative story. From the wild roller-coaster-like rides to the disappearing Christmas ghost, this process brings an amazing adventure to life.

To create the characters, actors were fitted with motion-capture suits like wetsuits, fitted with sensors that enabled digital cameras to capture their every move and expression. “We were able to imprint our performances onto the story as opposed to going into the studio and providing voices,” explained Hanks. 

Incredibly, Hanks plays five key characters -- the boy, his father, the conductor, the ghost-like hobo and Santa Claus. Since his sensor suit never changed, Hanks wore different shoes to help him get into each character.

Michael Jeter, in his last performance before he died, evokes audience smiles once again as the silly train engineer Steamer and oddball fireman Smokey. Nona Gage (The Matrix Reloaded) portrays the strong and capable Girl on the train. Peter Scolari (That Thing You Do) plays the very sad Lonely Boy, who has never had a visit from Santa. Eddie Deezen (Desperate Moves) is obnoxiously great as the Know-It-All-Boy.

The movie takes moments of reality, such as when the Boy is passed over a crowd like kids do at rave parties, and creatively blends in the message of the book, that the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.

The Polar Express is a rare Christmas gift for all ages.

(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "G" for general audiences.)

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