Xpress, the Coolest Section of the St. Petersburg Times, is the home for features, news and views of interest to young readers. Most of the work in Xpress, which appears on Mondays in Floridian, is produced by the Times' X-Team. The team of journalists ages 9-17 from around the Tampa Bay area is selected every year at the end of the school year to serve during the following school term. The current team of 12 was chosen out of 150 applicants. Watch for X-Team application forms in Xpress during the month of May.

Read the reviews by Xpress Film Critic Billy Norris

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Film review

Magic tale, magically told

Published November 15, 2004

[Warner Bros.]
An animated Tom Hanks stars in The Polar Express.

Billy Norris
Read the reviews by Xpress Film Critic Billy Norris

Movie: The Polar Express

Rated: G

Summary: A magical train appears in front of a boy's house late Christmas Eve. The train's conductor (voice of Tom Hanks) confidently announces that the train is the Polar Express, and it is headed for the North Pole. The boy, a Santa Claus skeptic and more or less non-believer, hesitantly boards the train to find a slew of other children gleefully mingling. Immediately befriending a girl on the train, the boy soon learns that they truly are traveling to watch Santa Claus give the first gift of Christmas, and to help send him off on his magical worldwide flight. The journey on the train is one of peril and adventure, and the more that happens, the closer the boy comes to realizing the true spirit of Christmas.

My view: Hailing from Chris Van Allsburg's nearly 20-year-old Christmas story, this film has almost all the elements of a great family movie. Visually, it is stunning. Every page in the book is beautifully represented on screen at some point. In an effort to capture the warmth and resonance of the book's pastel illustrations, the animators went to a newly developed extension of the motion-capture (mocap) technique. This technique involved the traditional sensor suit that captured the motion of the live actors (mostly Hanks, who played the majority of the roles in this film). The new part of this technique came in using a series of strategically placed digital cameras to capture detailed facial expressions and slight body movements. This effectively produced an uncanny human resemblance that is somewhat creepy and mildly unnerving. Nonetheless, I must give them credit for creating a remarkable product and breaking new ground.

Turning a simple, short picture book into a feature-length story requires a fair amount of embellishment. That was accomplished here in the form of a shady hobo who appeared several times throughout the movie, as well as other characters and sub-stories that were not present in the book. The pointless hobo character, also played by Hanks, was the movie's big turnoff. Too much emphasis was placed on his insignificant role, which dragged out the rising action of the plot. The final 20 minutes were great, but the time leading up to them passed all too slowly.

But the morality and message of The Polar Express outweigh any shortcomings.

Recommendations: Anyone who has read this treasured story will appreciate its solid representation on the big screen. At the screening I attended, you could hear a pin drop in the theater; the kids and parents alike were mesmerized. Families are the ideal audience here.

Grade: B

- Billy Norris, 16, is in 11th grade at Seminole High, and is a former member of the X-Team.

[Last modified November 12, 2004, 11:56:06]

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