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Santa's mixed bag

'Polar Express' has cool visuals but characters lack warmth

Originally published in 1985, Chris Van Allsburg’s ‘‘The Polar Express’’ is a hushed, haunted little book — a child’s illuminated manuscript set during the dreamy wee hours of Christmas Eve. It’s also all of 32 pages long. Director Robert Zemeckis, by contrast, has 96 minutes of screen time to fill, so we now have elves bungee-jumping from purple zeppelins, children teetering across impossibly high suspension bridges, slam-bang action sequences, and a rock-’n’-rolling Santa’s helper with the rubbery face and raucous voice of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.

Yes, it’s like that. Don’t worry, though — the film version of ‘‘The Polar Express’’ isn’t entirely a Hollywood hatchet job like last year’s ‘‘Dr. Seuss’ the Cat in the Hat.’’ The new movie has technological novelty and faith in itself, both of which count for something. But there’s only so far you can push a slender tale before it loses what made it special in the first place, and there’s only so much that digital information can convey about what makes a human being human.

So ‘‘The Polar Express’’ is a holiday oddity of the first rank: a breathtaking visual feast peopled by dead-eyed mannequins. At $170 million (not counting the hundreds of millions more spent to promote it), it’s also the most expensive department store window display ever mounted.

‘‘Express’’ tells of a doubting boy who travels to the North Pole on a massive, old-fashioned steam locomotive that pulls up in front of his door the night before Christmas and takes him and other chosen children to see Santa. The film is notable for its use of a new computer-animation technology called ‘‘performance capture.’’ What this means, basically, is that Tom Hanks had hundreds of electronic post-its attached to his body and face, each of which relayed information about his movements and expressions back to the software that was then used to digitally x ‘‘clothe’’ him.

And the clothes Hanks wears are varied indeed: Not only does the star provide the baseline data for the young Hero Boy of ‘‘Polar Express,’’ but he’s more recognizably Hanks-ian as the train’s conductor, a ghostly hobo, the hero’s dad, and Kris Kringle himself. Hanks also produced, by the way. Oddly, Daryl Sabara, the young actor who gives Hero Boy his sturdy, intelligent voice, is buried way down in the end credits. Was the kid naughty or something?

Around these characters the masterful CGI elves of Hollywood have gone to work, providing digital ‘‘sets’’ and backdrops, costumes and props, animals and endless snowy landscapes. This is easily the most impressive, even awe-inspiring aspect of ‘‘The Polar Express,’’ one that has a genuinely stunning pop-up splendor when seen on a 3-D IMAX screen. ‘‘The Polar Express’’ is a film that lives and dies by its visual punch, and having seen it twice now — once in 2-D and once with the funny glasses — I heartily recommend the IMAX version as the way to go if you’re going to go at all.

And maybe you should. The interiors have the luminous velvet hyperrealism of a Victorian holiday card, with details of decor and shadow that feel almost handcrafted. There’s a spectacular sequence involving a flyaway ticket swept out of the train on a journey past wolves, eagles, and waterfalls that’s a four-star short film all on its own (it’s also either an homage to the feather in ‘‘Forrest Gump’’ or a sign that Zemeckis is beginning to repeat himself). A scene with a massive herd of caribou looming out of the dark is eerie in all the good ways.

Unfortunately, the scenes with people are eerie in not-so-good ways. The movements of Hero Boy (they couldn’t give him a name?) and his friends seem to float atop the backgrounds, and their facial expressions, while technically correct, add to the general air of freakishness.

The eyes are the worst. The animators can get the details of a human iris down to the pixel but they’re helpless when it comes to the mystery of human presence, which means the characters are never more than likable zombies. Hero Girl, the plucky African-American lass voiced by Nona Gaye (‘‘The Matrix’’), has it the worst, since her eyes never quite seem to focus. Know-It-All, the bespectacled twerp voiced by Eddie Deezen, comes off better, since he’s supposed to look cross-eyed. More overtly cartoony characters, like the engineer and stoker (voiced by Andre Sogliuzzo, with movements provided by the late Michael Jeter in his final role) fare the best of all. Still, next to the Incredibles, these folks are barely the Credibles.

And then there’s Santa (Hanks again), who at last appears before the children and the massed throngs of chanting elves looking like an especially benevolent windup toy. The final scenes are remarkable for their use of architectural space and also their tacky, literal interpretation of holiday cheer, as though the Rockettes were staging the Radio City Christmas Spectacular on the sets of ‘‘Triumph of the Will.’’

By that point, Hero Boy, Hero Girl, and Lonely Boy (movements by Hanks’s old ‘‘Bosom Buddies’’ buddy, Peter Scolari) have weathered hair-raising roller coaster rides, a bone-rattling train trip across cracking ice, and a long journey by foot through the Dickensian brick alleys and empty warehouses of the Big Man’s North Pole factory. Much of this last part is both beautiful and unnerving, and while that’s in keeping with the spirit of Van Allsburg’s original — Santa’s city as a dark, angelic mill — it may throw your kids for a bit of a loop.

In fact, ‘‘The Polar Express’’ scores fairly high on the winged-monkey nightmare-o-meter, what with the mutant children and all. Some of this is creative license and some of it is plain miscalculation: A sequence in which a battered marionette comes to life in a darkened train compartment and jumps out at Hero Boy had a toddler at a screening I attended shrieking in terror. You’ve been warned.

At the end of it all, the movie returns to the simple, pleasantly spine-tingling imagery and message of the book: belief that will not die, a bell that will always ring. It’s sweet, but a little too late. Taken as a whole, ‘‘Express’’ is the weightiest slab of holiday fruitcake to be served in many a moon, perhaps even since young Pia Zadora appeared in ‘‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’’ back in 1964. But that was schlock that knew it was schlock, while Zemeckis and Hanks really seem to think they’re giving us a Christmas movie for the ages and a technology that will change cinema forever.

They’re wrong on both counts. ‘‘The Polar Express’’ is merely a marvelous toy that has somehow become convinced it has a soul.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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