Polar Express

Artistically speaking, the difference between “The Incredibles” and “The Polar Express” is the difference between A (as in grade) and C.

The only rationale for comparing these two films here is that both are animated features, and both open theatrically within less than a week apart. Several factors show why the Pixar production of Brad Bird's “The Incredibles” is superior to the Bob Zemeckis-Tom Hanks' effort, “Polar Express.” In gauging the merits of each picture, Ill be using the following yardsticks: Conception, overall vision, storytelling, use of technology, star power, emotional tone, and audience appeal.

Despite the innovative, cutting-edge technology, “Polar Express” is very much an old-fashioned Christmas tale about–and mostly for–children. The movie is far more interesting as a technical achievement than as a narrative tale, though the technical marvel can only compensate up to a point for the film's shortcomings. The much-publicized motion-capture process, originated in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, replicates human movement by digitizing the performances of live actors. However, it fails to capture the subtlety and nuance of facial expressions, particularly the eyes.

“Polar Express” also suffers from conceptual problems. The children, who are at the center of Chris Van Allsburg's much-admired fairy tale, don't look real, giving the film an unintentionally bizarre feeling, and situating them in a zone that's neither realistic nor sci-fi–their dead eyes make them look like pods or robots.

The film's detached perspective and emotionally remote tone keep the audience at a distance. Zemeckis works here more as a circus puppeteer than as a filmmaker concerned with story values and involving plot. For starters, the lead children have no names. They represent broad stock characters (Hero Boy, Hero Girl, Lonely Guy) rather than individualized creations with discernible personalities. The central trio consists of a white middle-class suburban boy from Middle America, a black girl who's smart and a natural-born leader, and a poor boy from the “wrong side of the tracks,” who has never experienced the real joy of Christmas.

The story begins well, on Christmas Eve, when the boy (based on Hanks' movement and Daryl Sabara's voice) struggles to overcome excitement and fall asleep. He dozes off only to be awakened by a huge steam train that comes to a sudden halt right outside his home. In quick order, he's instructed to climb aboard by a fatherly conductor (Hanks, doing both the physical and vocal), who's taking the train to the exotic North Pole. On the train, Hero Boy befriends Hero Girl (Nona Gaye), a black girl dressed in pajama and slippers. The train stops again, this time to pick up a lonely boy from a rundown home, who's too shy to hang with the clique.

Arguably, no other American director has used technology to better narrative purposes. Zemeckis has met startling and difficult tasks, taking movies into new realms, like fusing live action and cartoon in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Relishing technical challenges, Zemeckis again shows wry fondness for middle-American life with vigorous camera movements.

“Polar Express” is technically polished, and in moments even brilliant, but the story is too slim and its heroes lack human energy–or anything interesting to say or to do. As most of Zemeckis films, this one is directed in a punchy, exclamatory style. Indeed, some of the tricks are startling, like the first time the camera tracks a train ticket that flies out, or a brief, wonderful musical sequence in which dancing waiters serve cocoa to the kids on the train.

Unfortunately, Zemeckis has allowed his big-event, circus-like movie to lose sight of its human touch. The noisy, busy, and restless technical dynamics is all here but the magic is gone.