On Nov. 10, 2004, Warner Bros. unveiled Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express in theaters, where it would go on to gross $311 million worldwide and earn three Oscar nominations at the 77th Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter‘s original review is below.
Unwrapped as the closing-night film at the Chicago International Film Festival, The Polar Express was a resounding hit with a Middle American family audience and a fitting coming-home celebration for Chicagoan Robert Zemeckis. A technical landmark for Zemeckis and hundreds of visual effects specialists at Sony Imageworks, this computer-generated family film has, to boot, five Tom Hanks stuffed into its storytelling stocking. The breakthrough presentation should be a runaway worldwide success.
Based on Chris Van Allsburg’s best-selling 29-page novel about a boy’s waning faith in Santa Claus and his revitalizing journey to the North Pole, Polar Express is the first computer-generated film based on the performances of humans. But the film is not sheer wizardry; it also has heart. Zemeckis and co-writer William Broyles Jr. have etched an honorable transposition of the popular story of Hero Boy, who is roused one Christmas Eve to board a train that will take him to the North Pole on a journey of self-discovery. While seeing is believing, Hero Boy learns that the things that are most real in the world are those we cannot see.
The train contains a diverse mix of traveling kids. Most enchanting are Nona Gaye for her voicing of the confident and tender Hero Girl and Eddie Deezen for Know-It-All Boy, that thick-headed brain we all remember from our school days. One-man acting band Hanks is wonderfully adroit as both the doubting Hero Boy as well as a comic hoot as the punctilious train conductor. Hanks also does solid turns as the Boy’s Father, the Hobo and Santa. The late Michael Jeter limns two quirky characters, Steamer and Smokey, with inspired style, while Charles Fleischer’s comic pomposity as the Elf General is apt.
As befits Zemeckis’ personality, there is a need for speed: Polar Express is a runaway thrill when the train cascades, roller coaster-like through cavernous peaks and whips the line across icy lakes. There’s also rambunctious comedy — a caribou scene that’s a real howl — which buttresses the story’s sage wisdom.
To mount this expedition through mountainous caverns and frozen tundra, Zemeckis captured his actors in 3-D, with computers generating a “shell” performance from which he could select his most advantageous and effective camera position and movement. Mounting a CG film around natural performances invigorates the storytelling with a natural accelerant. Connecting Zemeckis’ kinetic scopings, editors Jeremiah O’Driscoll and R. Orlando Duenas unleash a story that soars with breakneck pace but slows in all the tender moments.
Visually, this train ride is both majestic and edge-of-your-seat. Directors of photography Don Burgess and Robert Presley’s compositions are nourished by shafts of light and shadings, while production designers Rick Carter and Doug Chiang have distilled a timeless Saturday Evening Post look. Most fittingly, author Van Allsburg’s drawings are integrated into the look of the movie. Alan Silvestri’s lushly sweeping score, whose locomotion often seems churned out by Gene Krupa, is bolstered by his and Glen Ballard’s stirring songs. There’s also some perennial standards from Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, which make it feel a lot like Christmas.
While projected here in 2-D, Warner Bros. Pictures will release a 3-D Imax version of Polar Express that should be an eye-popper. — Duane Byrge, originally published on Oct. 23, 2004