November 18, 2004 -- This is a low-key animated Christmas movie based on the popular children's book. The artwork is beautiful, there are some good songs, and it is a pretty good Christmas story, but is no classic, as some have claimed. Give me “Miracle on 34th Street” any day of Christmas week over this film, or “The Santa Clause” for that matter.The story concerns a youngster, (voice by Daryl Sabara), who doubts the existence of Santa Claus. A mysterious train stops by his house on Christmas Eve, the conductor (voice by Tom Hanks) says this train will take him to the North Pole. The purpose of this train seems to be to provide proof to people who doubt the existence of Santa. The boy also learns some lessons about the spirit of Christmas and life and he and a young girl on the train combine to help a young boy from the poor side of town get on the train and get his first Christmas present.
The plot keeps you guessing about what happens next, as a series of unexpected twists keeps the story from getting stale and predictable. The story is also rich with characters, including a mysterious hobo who rides on the train's roof, a know-it-all nerdling boy who lacks humility, and a young girl who is a born leader. Pioneering use of motion capture digital animation produces characters that are essentially lifeless. The lack of real emotions from the characters diminishes the power of the story. Santa Claus doesn't even smile!
Despite all that, the story is strong enough to maintain the interest of the audience. The images are beautiful and the music is excellent. A haunting ballad, “Believe,” sung by vocalist Josh Groban and written by Glen Ballard, is a show-stopper. There is also a lively song, “Hot Chocolate,” performed by Tom Hanks during a scene when the children are served hot chocolate drinks by a troupe of acrobatic singing, dancing waiters. Not a bad Christmas movie. It rates a C+.
The film is directed by Robert Zemeckis (“Cast Away”) and is written by Zemeckis and William Broyles Jr. (“Apollo 13”). I saw this film in a standard movie theater set up. There is also an IMAX 3-D version of this movie in release. I've seen some IMAX 3-D films before, and the three-dimensional effect is excellent. This would give the viewer a much different experience than the one I had. There are some dynamic scenes in the film, much like a roller coaster ride, that would be much more effective in a 3-D presentation.
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