<I>Polar</I> opposition: End of the line for the magic

Classic films don't grow on Christmas trees. We got spoiled last year when one holiday season gave us both Elf and Bad Santa. This year things have returned to the mediocre norm with Surviving Christmas, Noel, and The Polar Express.

It's not a good sign when technical innovations stir more conversation than other aspects of a film, and that's the case with The Polar Express. Chris Van Allsburg's book has a large fan base, but it's not a major achievement to tug a few heartstrings with a story about children and Christmas.

The main character, Hero Boy, is at the age his father calls "the end of the magic," when he's beginning not to believe in Santa Claus. As he's lying in his bed on Christmas Eve, The Polar Express pulls up outside his house (which can't be easy because there are no train tracks there) and whisks him off to the North Pole.

Among the children already on board are Hero Girl and Know-It-All, and the train makes one more stop to pick up Lonely Boy. The trip is a growing experience for all of them. Hero Boy displays unexpected bravery and compassion, Hero Girl supposedly reveals leadership potential, Know-It-All realizes he has a lot to learn, and Lonely Boy makes friends.

Director Robert Zemeckis has brought this tale to the screen in an animated process involving what's supposed to be the next generation of "motion capture," which was used for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. This time, all the actors are wired so computers can use every nuance of their movements in their animated counterparts.

It's less than a smashing success. The marionettes in Team America are sometimes only slightly more herky-jerky in their movements and definitely have more expressive faces than the animated characters of The Polar Express, who often wear what you might call polar expressions.

Another silly idea was having Tom Hanks play several parts. On some films, his salary might eat up the entire acting budget, but this $165 million production could have spread a little more around the rest of the Screen Actors Guild. Sure, Hanks can play the Conductor or Hero Boy's Father or Santa Claus– but all three?

Even allowing for some symbolism in that this could be a dream and he would represent all the male authority figures in the boy's life, it becomes more like a cheap stunt when Hanks also plays Hero Boy himself (with the voice dubbed by Spy Kid Daryl Sabara). Then there's the Hobo– who rides on top of the train– and a Scrooge puppet the Hobo operates... Enough Hanks, thanks.

A few other actors managed to muscle their way onto the set: Michael Jeter, who died last year, in his final performance– a dual role as the train's engineer and fireman; Nona Gaye as Hero Girl; Peter Scolari as Lonely Boy; and Eddie Deezen as Know-It-All. For an added gimmick, Steven Tyler performs as a singing elf, but his song is cut very short.

Tyler is about the only concession to adult viewers in this G-rated film, but parents who teach their children not to accept rides from strangers may not care for the message, quoted heavily in promotional materials: "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on."

If you're in your teens or above, you may get on The Polar Express, but I don't think you'll get off on it. My rent-a-kids, aged 11 and 9, at least one of whom had read the book, loved it; but they love any movie I take them to.

The Polar Express wasn't screened in Imax 3D, but it will be shown that way in theaters so equipped. That should add some excitement to several action sequences grafted on to the story to hold youngsters' attention. The theme park atmosphere they create isn't very useful otherwise.