A disillusioned little boy, just old enough to doubt the existence of Santa Claus, has the adventure of a lifetime one fateful Christmas Eve. Clad in his pajamas, he climbs aboard a magic train to the North Pole, driven by a kindly train conductor (voiced by Tom Hanks). Among myriad jaw-dropping moments, the train plummets brakeless through crystalline mountains in a simulated roller coaster ride. Going off the rails, skidding sideways, and snaking violently across a frozen lake, the train arrives at the North Pole (a vast, glowing city of brick buildings). At that moment, the car carrying the kids detaches and they're sent tumbling down never-ending chutes and slides until they land in the middle of Santa's Workshop. With its fascinating tale and impressive technical frolics, The Polar Express 3-D is destined to become both a holiday classic and a new turning point in the art of animated cinema.
Destined to become a holiday perennial, The Polar Express also heralded a brave new world of all-digital filmmaking. Critics and audiences were divided between those who hailed it as an instant classic that captures the visual splendor and evocative innocence of Chris Van Allsburg's popular children's book, and those who felt that the innovative use of "performance capture"--to accurately translate live performances into all-digital characters--was an eerie and not-quite-lifelike distraction from the story's epic-scale North Pole adventure. In any case it's a benign, kind-hearted celebration of the yuletide spirit, especially for kids who have almost grown out of their need to believe in Santa Claus. Tom Hanks is the nominal "star" who performs five different computer-generated characters, but it's the visuals that steal this show, as director Robert Zemeckis indulges his tireless pursuit of technological innovation. No matter how you respond to the many wonders on display, it's clear that The Polar Express represents a significant milestone in the digital revolution of cinema. If it also fills you with the joy of Christmas (in spite of its Nuremberg-like rally of frantic elves), so much the better. --Jeff Shannon