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THAT'S THE TICKET UNBELIEVABLE JOURNEY IN "THE POLAR EXPRESS" HAS THE MAKINGS OF A CHRISTMAS CLASSIC

The Polar Express *** 1/2 (out of four)

Rated G

Starring Tom Hanks, Michael Jeter, Nona Gaye

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

A doubting boy takes a journey to the North Pole on the Polar Express to see Santa with his own eyes, and along the way learns about believing in himself. 92 minutes

In the opening sequence of "The Polar Express," a boy clinging to the last wisps of childhood struggles with his growing doubts about Santa Claus.

The boy is not alone in his skepticism. Adults on the other side of the screen will likely find themselves wondering whether Director Robert Zemeckis' heavily promoted gamble using computer-generated imagery will be able to live up to its blockbuster hype.

In both cases, tremendous leaps of faith are required. The disbelief the boy needs to suspend is obvious; moviegoers have a tougher challenge. They have to believe that a lovingly crafted, artistically dazzling transformation of a beloved children's book to film -- released three weeks before Thanksgiving -- will somehow be able to hold its own at the box office against competitors like the unsentimental "The Incredibles" or more sophomoric, cynical, live-action holiday films, like "Christmas with the Cranks" or, Lord help us, "Surviving Christmas."

Hey, a reviewer can dream, can't she?

"The Polar Express" is an enchanting, multilayered and visually delightful film that deserves to become a holiday classic, though more along the lines of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" or "It's a Wonderful Life," than say, "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." If they were served on a holiday dessert buffet, "Polar Express" would be a stunning croquembouche - a carefully balanced construct at once light and rich, surrounded by a web of luminous spun sugar - and "Surviving Christmas" would be a Pillsbury slice-and-bake cookie with a garish snowman embedded in the dough.

"The Polar Express" was a labor of love for Zemeckis and executive producer and star Tom Hanks, who were fans of author Chris Van Allsburg's book (winner of the 1986 Caldecott Medal) and wanted to bring the author's lush and haunting oil pastel drawings to life in a film.

The film remains true to Van Allsburg's simple story. At five to midnight on Christmas Eve, Hero Boy lies awake in his bed, straining to hear sleigh bells and trying to shake his fear that Santa is not real. If he could just see Santa, he thinks, he would be able to truly believe. He is at that unique time of life when we are not quite children, not quite grown-ups, when he is not sure what to believe in: He is afraid to believe in Santa but also afraid NOT to believe.

Hero Boy is roused from semi-slumber by the sound of a train outside his window. In his slippers and robe, he boards the train at the coaxing of the kind but garrulous Conductor, who hands him a round-trip ticket to the North Pole.

The Polar Express' midnight run on Christmas Eve is specifically for children like Hero Boy, children whose faith in the existence of Santa is shaky. Once aboard, Hero Boy meets a strong and savvy girl who lacks faith in herself; a know-it-all nerd who needs to replace his book smarts with heart smarts; and a boy from the poor side of town who cannot believe in Christmas because he has never experienced it firsthand.

As the train wends its way toward the North Pole, it covers all the archetypal terrain that has come to symbolize growth, self-discovery and triumph over fear: a wolf-inhabited forest, shadowy tunnels, across a rickety bridge, a perilous mountain and over a frozen lake, the surface of which spiders with cracks as the train passes over it. By the time they reach Santa, all of Hero Boy's peers have regained their belief, but Hero Boy still requires proof from the man in red himself.

To re-create the otherworldly, dreamlike quality of Van Allsburg's book illustrations, Zemeckis used an experimental computer graphics imaging technique called motion capture, in which actors are covered with sensors and photographed by digital cameras, allowing technicians to build animated characters around the actors' actual movements and facial expressions.

The trailers and TV commercials for "The Polar Express" don't do justice to the breathtaking artistry of the film. The midnight landscapes, the train cars and houses are rendered with exquisite detail, and Santa's alpine village, which is far more captivating and awe-inspiring than that rinky-dink castle in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" - honors Van Allsburg's work while at the same time enlarging and enhancing it. The filmmakers ratchet up the excitement of the train ride by making it clatter over the rails like a gut-wrenching out-of-control roller coaster for prolonged stretches. But the most dazzling scene is that in which the train finally enters the main square at the North Pole, with thousands of elves surrounding the steaming metal hulk, that calls to mind nothing so much as the classic Red Square reunion scene in "Reds."

Hanks, who last worked with Zemeckis on "Cast Away," is yet again a revelation, proving himself to be the most versatile male lead in contemporary American film, using his voice and body to create distinct personas for the key characters he portrays, including the Conductor, the Hobo and Santa. Even as a rather texture-free computer creation, Hanks has a way of making me wish I were a volleyball named Wilson.

Hank's supporting cast includes his old "Bosom Buddy" Peter Scolari as the Lonely Boy, Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl and the late Michael Jeter as the train engineers Steamer and Smokey.

"The Polar Express" is not without flaws. There are sections - including a lovely three-minute sequence in which a train ticket flies out of Hero Boy's hand and wafts in and out of the train just out of reach until it ends up stuck in an air vent - that while gorgeous to look at, grows tedious. The train ride, too, seems unnecessarily drawn out, and younger members of the audience could be seen twitching and squirming, as if they were watching "Dr. Zhivago" instead of a 90-minute folk tale.

And although the motion-capture technique is a vast improvement over the original computer-generated imagery techniques seen in the original "Toy Story," the human faces still tend to look waxy and, sadly, kind of creepy. There are moments at which Hero Girl's eyes appear so flat and recessed from her face that her face resembles the doll in the "Chuckie" movies. Needless to say, this is a bit unsettling. The stiff-legged fidgety elves are also disturbing on a nearly subconscious level.

But these are quibbles, really. "The Polar Express" imperfections are overridden by its many selling points, not the least of which are its many messages about magic, wonder, and belief, which are offered up in different ways for children of all ages, even skeptical grown-ups.

It might be too sweet, too corny for fans of holiday films in with off-color elves and flatulent reindeer, but for the rest of us, it is a gift we will enjoy for years.

e-mail: bsullivan@buffnews.com