AN ALMOST EERIE adherence to Chris Van Allsburg's original storybook makes "The Polar Express" feel, at first, like a clinical operation. So what (you think to yourself) if they can perfectly replicate the images in the book with computer graphics? Where's the life? But almost immediately, this movie takes hold of you. Somewhere amid those computer-generated pixels, there is life, liveliness and magic.
Much of that zest comes from Tom Hanks, who plays five of the principal parts. (More on this in a sec.) Thanks to a process called performance capture, his movements, expressions, gestures, voice -- basically, the whole acting instrument that is Hanks -- have been regenerated into digital characters via body-hugging motion sensors. The same process is true for the rest of the ensemble, which includes talented performers Leslie Harter Zemeckis, Nona Gaye, Eddie Deezen and Peter Scolari.
The result is almost hypnotic: You are watching perfect representations of live actors, yet they are artificial. There is life in the machine, and machine in these lives. They are moving, beings unto themselves. Dancing in a fascinating intersection between real and computerized. It's as if the bedside book itself became animated, started talking to you, its characters sitting up from the flat page and becoming three-dimensional. Well, indeed, that's exactly what has happened.
A small boy (one of Hanks's six roles, but voiced by Daryl Sabara from the "Spy Kids" movies) known in the story as Hero Boy, has his doubts about Santa Claus's existence. He can smell the intrigue of his parents, who are doing their best to enthuse the kids for the fat man's arrival.
Right around midnight of Christmas Day, the boy is stirred by the roar of a train coming to a rumbling halt outside his snowbound house. He runs out to investigate. Sees a large black train that has stopped for him. The conductor (Hanks) asks him if he's coming aboard. Destination? The North Pole. After a little trepidation, the boy realizes he can't contain his curiosity, nor his desire to remain innocent and to believe. He hops aboard, still in PJs and slippers.
He meets other children aboard: Hero Girl (Gaye), Know-It-All Boy (Deezen), and, joining them a stop later, Lonely Boy (Scolari). And when he makes a heroic attempt to retrieve Hero Girl's lost ticket on the roof of the moving train, he also meets the ghostly Hobo (Hanks), who rides above and below the train. Their shared experiences, onboard with the benevolent mysterious conductor (who punches individualized messages on their tickets), in the North Pole with Santa and his virtual civilization of helpers, then on the return leg, make a compelling adventure.
Director Robert Zemeckis, who adapted this with William Broyles Jr., has blazed an inventive path for 20 years with "Back to the Future," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Death Becomes Her" and "Forrest Gump." Here, he has done it again. There are some breathtaking scenes, such as the one in which Hero Girl's lost ticket flies out of the train, then takes a fluttery, serendipitous route that includes getting stuck under the wheels, swooping down an arctic ravine and even landing temporarily in a bird's nest before getting sucked back into the train. And there's a wonderful interlude on a frozen scape where the train is confronted by an enormous herd of caribou that simply won't budge. These moments, richly detailed and always surprising, make for a truly satisfying holiday picture, the kind everyone can enjoy, and which may even restore a little lost childhood in many adult viewers. You can't ask for much more.
THE POLAR EXPRESS (G, 93 minutes) -- Contains nothing objectionable. Area theaters.