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Review: 'Polar Express' a creepy ride

Technology brilliant, but where's the heart and soul?

By Paul Clinton

Tom Hanks plays five roles -- including the conductor -- in "The Polar Express."
Tom Hanks
Robert Zemeckis

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- This season's biggest holiday extravaganza, "The Polar Express," should be subtitled "The Night of the Living Dead." The characters are that frightening.

This is especially disheartening since there's so much about this technologically groundbreaking movie -- from Academy Award-winning director Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks -- that's astounding.

The overall artwork is remarkable, and the action sequences are inventive and emotionally gripping. Alan Silvestri's soundtrack is a musical feast, with selections from everyone from Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra to Steven Tyler.

And the movie has a warm Christmas setting, featuring a group of Kodak-perfect kids on a magical train trip to the North Pole.

But those human characters in the film come across as downright ... well, creepy. So "The Polar Express" is at best disconcerting, and at worst, a wee bit horrifying.

Closed windows

Not live action, and not totally computer-generated animation either, "Polar Express" uses motion- -- or performance- -- capture technology. This process allows a filmmaker to use actual human beings acting out their roles on an empty soundstage, and then merges them into a three-dimensional computer-generated world.

Without getting mired down in technological gobbledygook, this complicated system involves the performers dressing in skintight bodysuits with hundreds of infrared sensors covering the suits and their faces. These sensors then relay the smallest nuance of movement back to a computer, where it's all translated into human motion -- and emotion. (The same process was used for Andy Serkis' portrayal of Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings.")

The results are breathtakingly realistic except for two vital facial areas: the inside of the mouth and the eyes, where the sensors cannot be placed. Therefore, these areas have to be computer generated. It just doesn't work, and this fact is called into sharp relief since the faces of the actors are so incredibly expressive.

To quote an old cliche, the eyes are the windows to the soul -- so these characters look soul dead. When the characters are experiencing extreme emotions, such as fear or surprise, the animation seems to work. But when the characters are still -- and processing information from each other -- they look lifeless.

To put it another way, you can knock, but nobody's home.

The mouth action is also less than overwhelming, since the characters' tongues look like slabs of meat when they speak their lines.

A glowing Santa Claus

Santa seems surrounded by a radioactive glow, says critic Paul Clinton.

Zemeckis is a techno nerd with visually groundbreaking films on his resume, including "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", "Forrest Gump" and the "Back to the Future" film series. Those films took giant leaps in the art of technology, but with "Polar Express," Zemeckis gets an A only for effort.

The script is also problematic. Zemeckis and co-writer William Broyles Jr. have taken a popular 29-page children's book (written and beautifully illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg) and attempted to flesh it out into a full-fledged feature film. Zemeckis started with the first line from Van Allsburg's book, ended with the last line, and pretty much filled in all the rest.

There are five main characters in the film, none of whom have names. They are the train conductor and the boy (both played by Hanks), the hero girl (Nona Gaye), Lonely Boy (Peter Scolari, Hanks' former co-star on the TV show "Bosom Buddies"), and Know-It-All Boy (longtime voice-over actor Eddie Deezen).

Each child who boards the Polar Express is theoretically on his or her own personal spiritual journey; think of them as the characters in "The Wizard of Oz." But with the exception of the Hanks boy, the children's personalities or inner conflicts aren't fleshed out enough for the audience to care.

The film takes itself oh so seriously, too.

In addition to playing the boy and the conductor, Hanks also portrays the boy's father, a mysterious hobo and Santa Claus.

Santa Claus gets his very own category of creepy. In an overzealous effort to make Saint Nick look like he has some kind of benevolent inner glow, the filmmakers make him look downright radioactive. It's enough to make you want to skip the milk and cookies and don rubber gloves and protective clothing on Christmas Eve.

It's a shame. "The Polar Express" wants to be an uplifting holiday film, but it tries too hard to make its point. Moreover, the technology just hasn't caught up to the lofty ambitions of the hundreds of talented people behind this film. And when it comes to the characters within, the film looks like a remake of "The Children of the Corn."

Better to let the "Express" go on its way.

"The Polar Express" opens Wednesday. It is rated G.

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