"The Polar Express" has the quality of a lot of lasting children's entertainment: It's a little creepy. Not creepy in an unpleasant way, but in that sneaky, teasing way that lets you know eerie things could happen. There's a deeper, shivery tone, instead of the mindless jolliness of the usual Christmas movie. This one creates a world of its own, like "The Wizard of Oz" or "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," in which the wise child does not feel too complacent.
Those who know the Chris Van Allsburg book will feel right at home from the opening moments, which quote from the story: "On Christmas Eve, many years ago, I lay quietly in my bed. ..." The young hero, who is never given a name, is listening for the sound of sleigh bells ringing. He is at just the age when the existence of Santa Claus is up for discussion.
The look of the film is extraordinary, a cross between live action and Van Allsburg's artwork. Robert Zemeckis, the same director whose "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988) juxtaposed live action with animation, this time merges them, using a process called "performance capture," in which human actors perform the movements which are translated into lifelike animation. The characters in "The Polar Express" don't look real, but they don't look unreal, either; they have a kind of simplified and underlined reality that makes them visually magnetic. Many of the body and voice performances are by Tom Hanks, who is the executive producer and worked with Zemeckis on "Forrest Gump" (1994) -- another film that combined levels of reality and special effects.
The story: As Hero Boy lies awake in bed, there is a rumble in the street and a passenger train lumbers into view. The boy runs outside in his bathrobe and slippers, and the conductor advises him to get onboard. Having refused to visit a department store Santa, having let his little sister put out Santa's milk and cookies, Hero Boy is growing alarmingly agnostic on the Santa question, and the Polar Express apparently shuttles such kids to the North Pole, where seeing is believing.