WARNER BROS./Color/2.35 (IMAX 3D in select theatres)/Dolby Digital, DTS & SDDS/97 Mins./Rated G

Cast: Tom Hanks, Michael Jeter, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Eddie Deezen, Charles Fleischer, Steven Tyler, Leslie Zemeckis.
Credits: Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by Zemeckis, William Broyles, Jr., based on the book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. Produced by Steve Starkey, Zemeckis, Gary Goetzman, William Teitler. Executive producers: Tom Hanks, Jack Rapke, Van Allsburg. Directors of photography: Don Burgess, Robert Presley. Production designers: Rick Carter, Doug Chiang. Edited by Jeremiah O'Driscoll, R. Orlando Duenas. Visual effects supervisors: Ken Ralston, Jerome Chen. Music by Alan Silvestri. Songs by Glen Ballard, Silvestri. Sound designer: Randy Thom. Costume designer: Joanna Johnston. Co-producer: Steven Boyd. A Castle Rock Entertainment presentation, in association with Shangri-La Entertainment, of a Playtone and ImageMovers/Golden Mean production.

It's difficult to categorize The Polar Express, for it could be described as any one of these things: 1) a visually fascinating and heartwarming animated film that brings to cinematic life a popular children's story about one boy's search for Santa Claus; 2) the triumphant introduction of a new cinematic technique which seamlessly blends the work of real actors—their voices, expressions and movements—with cutting-edge computer animation; 3) yet another opportunity for Tom Hanks to display his amazing versatility, or 4) a nice but not spectacular holiday movie for family viewing.

The story is a simple one, taken from Chris Van Allsburg's beautifully illustrated book, a favorite holiday read for parents and their kids over the last couple of decades. An eight-year-old boy goes to bed on Christmas Eve with a nagging worry: Is there a Santa Claus or isn't there? He closes his eyes, soooo wanting to hear those sleigh bells. Instead, he's suddenly startled by what sounds and feels like an approaching earthquake. But no, it's a train, pulled by a huge steam engine, and it's stopping right in his front yard.

Running outside, the Boy (never mentioned by name) is greeted by the Conductor, who presents him with a ticket to board the Polar Express—heading, of course, to Santa's hideaway at the North Pole. Climbing aboard, he meets a collection of other pajama-clad kids, including the Girl, who becomes his new best friend, Lonely Boy (from “the wrong side of the tracks”) and an obnoxious Know-it-All-Boy. The other denizens of this magical train, in addition to the Conductor, are a Hobo (who mysteriously appears and disappears from a precarious snowy perch atop the train), a couple of wacko engineers doing their thing up front in the locomotive, and (in a fleeting appearance) a hyped-up chorus line of leaping, dancing, singing waiters—ostensibly dispatched from a never-seen dining car.

Wild adventures pile up as the train races over countryside, climbs mountains, zooms across rickety bridges and skids across frozen lakes, while the Boy and Girl—bonding as they sense their specialness—lose each other, reunite, almost wreck the train, make Lonely Boy feel better about himself, etcetera, etcetera. Finally, the Polar Express deposits its passengers at a North Pole metropolis which, with its abundance of solidly square red brick structures, resembles what one might imagine as the best neighborhood in Moscow. More adventures ensue before the kids get to meet Santa, just as he's taking off on his Christmas rounds. The Boy, who has proven his good heart and heroism more than once, is singled out by Santa for a special gift—an answer, of sorts, to the Christmas Eve wish he made back home in bed. Santa gives him a sleigh bell he can ring anytime he's in doubt and really needs to believe.

A nice enough little Christmas story. Yes, but what about the new animation technique that director Robert Zemeckis and his production crew "invented" for The Polar Express—the process they call, somewhat pretentiously, “performance capture”? Actually, the technique has been utilized before, but not on this scale. Here, virtually every “actor” (save the entirely digitalized leaping waiters and Santa's army of elves) went through his/her entire performance clad in a “motion-capture suit” sewn with light-reflective sensors which translated every movement into a digital pattern, allowing the computer to recreate them in the human-like animated characters. Stress the human-like. Actually, the results are not terribly realistic or appealing, more creepy than comforting.

However, using the “performance-capture” process did allow Tom Hanks to play five roles—the Boy and his father, the Conductor, the Hobo and Santa Claus. The late Michael Jeter had a dual role, as Smokey and Steamer, the train engineers; Peter Scolari is Lonely Boy, Nona Gaye plays the Girl and Eddie Deezen the Know-it-all Boy. Note that all of these actors are adults, yet all were playing children. To carry this off, they performed (in their light-reflecting unitards) on large-scale sets, to give them the feeling of being small.

Hard to picture, isn't it, how all of this high-tech stuff comes together? Well, never mind, for what matters is the overall effect. To help the viewer accept the creepily lifelike quality of the animated characters, the filmmakers fill in the background with beautifully illustrated vistas, dark and mysterious, greatly resembling the original paintings Van Allsburg did for his book. And, for a further distraction, they insert lots of nonstop action, a series of video-game-like visual thrills, with the train and its passengers swooping up and down roller-coaster tracks, slipping sideways, plummeting underground and flying up in the air. It's exhausting. And, yes, in the end there's a heartwarming finale.

Oh, a word to those grandparents who take their kids to see The Polar Express over the holidays: Turn up your hearing aids to hear, playing faintly in the background, some old, familiar Christmas carols sung by the likes of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Now, that's heartwarming.