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‘Polar Express’ is clever yet cloying

Tom Hanks voices six characters in this Christmas tale. By John Hartl

When it’s good, which is most of the time, “The Polar Express” suggests a Christmasy version of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It’s also quite a workout for Tom Hanks, who has a ball playing six roles, including a train conductor who appears to have a Wonka-like agenda for the kids he takes to the North Pole on his magic train.

As long as he’s a mystery, as long as the kids are required to respond to him as a mischievous authority figure who may or may not be testing them, the movie is an irresistible roller-coaster ride. Charging through snow and skimming over a frozen lake, the train dips and climbs and dips again, reflecting the emotions of the children as they feel threatened or rewarded or teased into each new adventure.

When it’s not running so smoothly, when the cloying moments threaten to overwhelm the clever touches and the state-of-the-art visual effects, “The Polar Express” can get trapped in sentiment. The characters, who have no names, are literally identified as types (Hero Girl, Lonely Boy), and they sometimes come across as one-note people in a schematic universe. 

The fact that they’re presented via a new process, called Performance Capture, adds to the air of artificiality. Stranded somewhere between a cartoon and a live-action film that relies heavily on computer technology to create characters (think Gollum in “Lord of the Rings”), it looks like no other movie. That novelty is both a drawback and the chief reason that many people will want to see it — especially in IMAX theaters, which will be projecting the film in 3-D.

The script by William Broyles Jr. and director Robert Zemeckis, based on the story and illustrations in Chris Van Allburg’s celebrated 1985 storybook, revolves around Hero Boy (Hanks), a skeptical child who thinks he’ll never hear the sound of Santa’s sleigh. He’s discovered in the dictionary that the North Pole is “devoid of life” and he appears to be headed toward a rocky adolescence.

On Christmas Eve, however, a passenger train makes a flashy arrival in front of his house (the light and sound effects echo Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), and the conductor offers him a trip to the North Pole. On board, he meets Hero Girl (Nona Gaye) and the nerdy Know-It-All Boy (Eddie Deezen); joining them later is Lonely Boy (Peter Scolari), who sings a ballad about how Christmas never works out for him.

The busy score (by Glen Ballard and longtime Zemeckis collaborator Alan Silvestri) includes another prominent song, during which dancing waiters supply hot chocolate to the kids, and there’s even a credit for choreography. The cartoon “dancing,”  unlike the movie’s other special effects, feels oddly cramped and forced.

“The Polar Express” clicks along at a satisfying pace as long as the train is moving forward and the kids are exploring their options as they face various character-revealing crises. Once it reaches Santa’s home (with Hanks playing Santa), and the children start learning greeting-card lessons about the meaning of Christmas, it loses some of its sense of wonder.