‘The Polar Express’ rides to top of box office

Ted Pigeon

The Polar Express

***½ (out of four)

-Starring Tom Hanks, Peter Scolari and Michael Jeter

-Based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg

-Directed by Robert Zemeckis

-Running Time: 100 minutes

-Rated: G

With all the advancements made in special effects in the last 10 years, it’s becoming easier for filmmakers to visually capture just about anything conjured by the imagination.

But in order for visual effects to work, they must be used properly and capture the feeling of what the film is trying to create. Too often digital effects are used simply because they’re available, and too often films fall flat due to their misuse or overuse of them.

But sometimes this relatively new technology can be used to great effect, and Robert Zemeckis’ new film, the computer animated “The Polar Express,” is a rare example of that. It is a stunning visual spectacle brimming with cinematic magic in every shot.

The film is based on the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg about a frustrated boy with many doubts concerning the existence of Santa Claus.

He is awoken in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve by the rumbling of a train that unexpectedly shows up at his doorstep. He learns that it is the Polar Express and that it is traveling to the North Pole, and the conductor (Tom Hanks) is waiting for him to get on board.

The opening moments of the movie leap right into the narrative and involve us right away in all that’s happening, creating the same effect in the audience as it does in the central character.

It’s hard to know what to make of the story, the plot or the characters, yet there is a certain intrigue in taking the journey and an equal feeling of bewilderment and awe.

As the boy decides to finally board the Polar Express, leaving the world he knows behind, we know as he does that it’s going to be a journey worth taking.

Director Robert Zemeckis then effortlessly maintains that discovering feeling and continues to build on it when the boy meets more children like him and several other fascinating characters that occupy the train as it makes its way to the North Pole.

What is obviously important to Zemeckis is the sense of atmosphere to all the environments in the film.

In almost every scene near the beginning of the film, there is an encounter with a new character, and in each of these scenes there is a constant feeling of wonder and mystery. Part of this is due to the amazing detail in the animation which constitutes the sublime world created in the film, but it’s also due to the nature of the story.

Zemeckis wants us to feel more than just the happy-go-lucky feelings of Christmas. He attempts to give a wondrous, yet disorienting likeness to the film, hearkening the style of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and he pulls it off to perfection. That overall feeling is built upon throughout the whole film, which is why every scene is a discovery in itself.

The film is littered with sometimes arbitrary but always involving action sequences which flesh out the quieter scenes of conversation and taking in the many environments.

Perhaps I would normally complain more about the presence of so many action set pieces in a movie, but it’s simply too enjoyable to see action done so well. One would expect nothing less from the man who made the “Back to the Future” films. Robert Zemeckis shows, once again, that he can build tension and an action scene very well.

For Tom Hanks, who voices just about every grown-up character in the film including Santa, this movie is a showcase for his more eccentric acting abilities, which he proves are limitless.

As I made mention in regards to “The Incredibles,” the acting in an animated film is very important, and Tom Hanks brings an added level of magic to the movie in his portrayal of its many characters, ranging from the moody yet fatherly conductor to the eccentric hobo who lives on the train.

There are innumerable moments in this movie of shear beauty, such as a roller coaster sequence with the train plummeting down steep, snow-covered mountains and across icy lakes, or when it ascends to the tip of a mountain peak, winding around it like a snake and omitting steam along the way.

These visuals combined with the richly symphonic score by Alan Silvestri represent instances of pure cinematic magic. But perhaps the most notable aspect of the film is how all of its elements come together so well to create the strange sense of wonder present in every scene.

The story being told here isn’t very complicated, but the brilliance of it is how well it involves you in its journey, as if you were the little boy trying to take in everything around him.

What is so great about this film is how it creates the innocent sense of magic that every kid whoever gazed out their window on Christmas Eve in joyful anticipation can relate to.

Many of us have been there, and for those who have (myself being one of them), there is no greater feeling of wonder than knowing that Santa will be journeying down your chimney some time that very night.

“The Polar Express” captures the feeling of that experience many of us had long ago, proving that although someday we all grow up and learn to let go of that feeling, it’s never really gone, and it never should be.