Movies: All Aboard the Big Train

Tom Hanks doesn't turn Polar Express into much of a thrill ride. For that you need 3-D goggles

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Maybe it's the moment when the speeding train screeches to a stop about an inch and a half from your nose. Or possibly it's a much simpler effect--a snowfall that seems to be drifting down on you right there in the theater. Anyway, at some point very early in the 3-D IMAX version of The Polar Express, technology trumps banality and you helplessly surrender to the shock and awe of this big, often thunderous movie. And to a certain pity for the great mass of people obliged to conduct their children to the thousands of theaters in which the film is playing in its ordinary--or as they say in the trade, flat--form.

You will have heard by now that the IMAX version of Robert Zemeckis' animated movie is a historic occasion--the first fictional feature ever to be presented on the big, big screen to audiences wearing those silly 3-D goggles. You will perhaps have been dismayed to discover that it is not necessarily playing in a theater near you. There are only about 50 IMAX locations in the U.S. screening it. You will doubtless wonder whether seeking it out is worth your trouble.

If what you're looking for is delicate magic, the answer is no. It's just a clunky story--adapted from the children's book by Chris Van Allsburg--of a kid falling asleep on Christmas Eve, seriously doubting the existence of Santa Claus, then dreaming of the eponymous train pulling into his front yard and transporting him to the North Pole. There he finds a not particularly jolly old St. Nick presiding over a kind of super Wal-Mart, in which, you can be sure, the elves toil without protection of a union contract. The mass adoration that greets this Santa's appearance before his helpers may, indeed, queasily remind you of modern dictators rallying the faithful.

But that's not why we're here--not at the IMAX installation, anyway. We're here for the train. Or, more particularly, it's vertiginous journey. It is all S curves and roller-coaster ups and downs, with a skidding voyage across a literally trackless ice sheet thrown in for good measure. Older crocks will be reminded of the Cinerama adventures of their misspent youths, but this time the process is perfect--no annoying jiggles where the three screens of the old technology never quite matched. There are times when you'll pull back in your seat to avoid some onrushing object. Other times you'll feel your stomach descending toward your ankles. Frequently you'll be grateful for Tom Hanks' cranky, reassuring aplomb as the train's fussy conductor.

The motion-capture animation, which turns real actors into the virtual variety, is less likable. They are as wooden as Snow White's prince. And just because it is now possible to count every hair on their heads doesn't mean we want to. But look, it's not art. It's a head trip. You could argue, in fact, that the IMAX Polar Express returns movies to their most primitive beginnings, when the simple act of realistically capturing motion on a screen--narrative subtlety be damned--was sufficient to thrill, enchant and totally involve an audience. By that crude standard, this film is an experience not to be missed. Or, perhaps, repeated. --By Richard Schickel