The Polar Express

Cold as the Arctic.

It's cold above the Arctic Circle, even if you work for a robust, often maligned caregiver. Director Robert Zamekis ("Cast Away) and Tom Hanks ("Cast Away") join forces again to make an animation based on the illustrated Chris Van Allsburg children's book about a seven-year old boy who questions Santa's existence and travels by magical train to Toyland for the ocular proof.

Although the art process of "performance capture," which transforms human movements into animation (used also for Gollum in "Lord of the Rings") is revolutionary in its magic realism, the characters are wondrously almost real, a fact that leads me to question why have animation at all if stylization is not a value for animation. However, the roller coaster like rides and unusual camera points of view (one time it actually looks through a printed page with the letters suspended) satisfy my need for the representational and fantastic in animation.

The movie is cold like the Arctic: There is a blatantly conservative message that Boy Hero (he is not named, presumably for universal application reasons), and by implication everyone else on the train and in the world, should "believe": believe the fussy and punctual conductor, the hobo, the boy's parents, and even the elves, when they encourage him to accept Santa (sounds evangelical, doesn't it?) contrary to what his eyes have shown him in real life and what his growing analytical mind has determined. With the appointment of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, the Girl The obedience motif of "Express" reminds me of the rationale for the Iraq war and John Kerry's claim about a "plan for the future."

Beyond the theme, the art/set design disturbs me as well. While the express is beautifully drawn and moved--when it slides on the ice you know why animation can be superior to old-fashioned photography--Santa's village is patterned after a 19th-century German factory town, which feels cold and vacant, no matter how loud the elves or how benign Santa. This revisionist interpretation appeals to my Christmas-agnostic side while it looks more opposite the spirit of the myth than the myth allows, even if following the spirit of the book. It would be like setting "The Wizard of Oz" (which "Polar Express" resembles) in Cleveland.

What I like about the film is that Boy Hero seems a tad skeptical even after the adventure. I also like A.A.Milnes' jaundiced view: "I find it difficult to believe in Father Christmas. If he is the jolly old gentleman he is always said to be, why doesn't he behave as such? How is it that the presents go so often to the wrong people?"

There's a rumored half billion dollars needed before the company turn a profit, given Zamekis and Hanks reputedly taking a third. With the rather bleak tone of the film going contrary to the prevailing spirit of the season and the softening needs of a war-weary world, I suggest the filmmakers turn quickly to world distribution and DVD sales. Otherwise, it can be very cold even in the warm California sun.