“Seeing is believing,” says an enigmatic hobo-ghost (Tom Hanks) in The Polar Express, a sentiment on the mind of the Saint Nickagnostic “Hero Boy” (voiced by Spy Kid Daryl Sabara), who will later (SPOILER ALERT!!!) re-dedicate himself to the spirit of Christmas, thanks to an unbearably pompous Santa. (Actual line: “This bell is a wonderful symbol of Christmas, as am I.”) The truism might also serve as a challenge to those skeptical of any movie involving bodysuits covered with computer-readable dots. Robert Zemeckis’s animated spectacle (from Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book) dives straight into the realm of fantasy, and its fizzy mechanical inventions can be transfixing, from the titular North Polebound train to the enormous, Matrix Reloaded–style bank of TV monitors that allows the (oddly, Yiddish-using) elves to keep tabs on who’s been naughty or nice. In the best scene, one that’s essentially padding, a child’s train ticket (gold, like Charlie Bucket’s Willy Wonka invite) falls like the feather in Forrest Gump, and goes through an obstacle course reminiscent of the sticking-paper sequence in the Tintin book The Calculus Affair before being reunited with its owner.
Seeing is believing, then. But when it comes to the “humans,” the atmosphere collapses. Unnervingly smooth, mouths moving in strange, even frightening formations, the Polar people are the least convincing things on-screen, glaring impostors amid the otherwise painstakingly rendered scenery. (As the gruff conductor, “Tom Hanks” looks like Dan Aykroyd playing Mr. McFeely. With Botox.) And as in the scene in which the P.E. swerves like a snake over a frozen lake, the tone goes off the tracks—pumping the nostalgia one moment, advertising future theme-park roller coasters the next.