So as I was saying, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason was adapted for the screen by subtracting from the original story. But what happens when a book’s perfection is poised on the merest wisp of a tale in the first place? If The Polar Express, now tootling through theaters on a holiday timetable, followed the precise route of the well-loved Chris Van Allsburg picture-book classic on which it’s based, the trip would be short indeed: The book’s cozy-eerie journey does run express, a blink-of-an-eye fairy tale told through the mood of Van Allsburg’s soft, dark, wordless, dream-smudged oil paintings, with no need to make local stops through such earthbound literary requirements as conflict, character development, and dialogue.
The movie’s practical, if less satisfyingly haunting solution, then, is to add feature-style complication to the plot — and Tom Hanks to the showbiz quotient. In director Robert Zemeckis’ intricate, exploratory, indefinably askew interpretation, Hanks provides voice and body movement (morphed by intricate ”performance capture” technology into digital animation) to five roles, although not all of them exist in the book. (The character of the train’s avuncular conductor, who looks the most Hanks-like on screen and most fully approximates the star’s persona, was never even pictured on the page.) And the screenplay, by Zemeckis and William Broyles Jr., plumps Van Allsburg’s simple fable about the purity of childhood faith in what can’t be seen with all sorts of wholly invented characters, complications, and declarations. Due, perhaps, to drops in the barometric pressure of the zeitgeist, the script also switches the attitude of the hero boy (Hanks again), whose Christmas Eve adventure this is, from that of a believer in Santa Claus to a nonbeliever before his round-trip commute to the North Pole.
On Zemeckis’ turbocharged Polar Express, a magical, ghostly hobo rides the top of the train, the hero boy is joined by a few all-sorts travel mates, and waiters burst into song and dance as they serve hot cocoa. And if the children and elves and Santa, too, look slightly unnerving with their pod-people eyes, well, I only wish there were more of the disorienting — more of the silently, hypnotically Van Allsburgian — and less of the flat, linear, polished, technical brilliance with which this big-ticket vehicle runs its route.