Let me get this out of the way right now: I'm pretty sure kids will love The Polar Express, the full-length movie based on Chris Van Allsburg's beloved 32-page book. While I like to think that I still have an inner child, Robert Zemeckis's latest cinematic stunt gave me the wrong kind of chills. Using motion-capture CGI technology--live actors and cameras and reflective pellets and infrared capture receptors--Zemeckis has made a movie during which, every five minutes, the adults in the audience can tell themselves, "Ooh, that kind of looked real." As one of Tom Hanks's five characters says in the film, "Sometimes the most real things in the world are the ones we can't see."
Hanks provides the motion-capture performance (though not the voice) for Hero Boy, a child who has ceased to believe in Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, he awakes--or does he?--to the thundering sound of the Polar Express, which pulls up right outside his door.
Invited on by a conductor ("performed" and voiced by Hanks), the boy meets some new chums, has video-game-styled adventures, and learns to believe again (sorry, gave away the ending). In a newfangled twist on Frank Morgan's work in The Wizard of Oz, Hanks also plays the boy's father, a hobo ghost, and a certain jolly old elf.
Of course, just about every children's film wants to (motion) capture The Wizard of Oz (Harry Potter and Willy Wonka also haunt this train and its destination), but The Polar Express has a bland doll in Hero Boy and repetitive roller-coaster theatrics for its adventure. Whenever the screenwriters--Zemeckis and William Broyles, Jr.--are in doubt, they add a roller-coaster pastiche or some skiing business or a slalom. Too little of the high-speed-travel action is inventive, though a winking exaggeration of Zemeckis's...