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THE POLAR EXPRESS

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With its near-photorealism, and the imaginations of director Robert Zemeckis and crew taking off from Chris Van Allsburg's gorgeous kiddie book, this animated film is a visual treat, from a child's iris reflecting light like polished stone to the sight of timber wolves galloping through snowy nighttime woods. The spare story follows a boy skeptical of Santa Claus who's among a dozen well-groomed children spirited away on Christmas Eve by a magical steam locomotive; guided by a crusty conductor (voice of Tom Hanks), they're off to the North Pole to learn valuable lessons. But attaining feature length demands major narrative padding, and despite the sight of roughly 5,000 red-clad elves massed in a public square, awaiting their Great Leader and celebrating the triumph of a centrally planned export-driven economy, the film belies its own parables about faith: Believing is made to seem so much more pleasant than doubting that you'd be a fool to do otherwise. 

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