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[whitespace] 'The Polar Express'
Train They Ride The express to the North Pole takes off in Robert Zemeckis' Christmas film.

Polar Attraction

By Richard von Busack

THE WHITE-HAIRED grandma and her grandson-in-law were taking the kid to the movies. It must have been one of the child's earliest trips to a theater. They waited for the beginning of the early show of The Polar Express. The father toyed with his cell phone, and the grandma reminded the child why he was there. It was his birthday, and whenever it was his birthday he could expect presents and cake. The child was so small he didn't grasp the concept of a birthday. He could speak, but only in those broken 2-year-old child sentences that my sister once said reminded her of Frankenstein. "No salt. Butter," said the birthday boy, when his mother turned up with a large tub of popcorn. It was too late, of course.

The previews started. G-rated previews were a different bag than you get at the serious movie theater. Two separate upcoming pictures about talking zebras, one live action, one computer-animated. One Ice Cube vehicle, replete with crushing post-Home Alone heavy slapstick. The working title must have been MC Babysitter.

A little after the start of the movie, three battered-looking teens I'd seen swaggering around the concession stand took the back row. They started whispering their heads off. They stamped their feet when one of them got off a good joke. Modern Christmas movies generally have a lot of violence in them, in hopes of tickling children and high-school barbarians alike. The Polar Express didn't. The teens were at that uncomfortable age that's usually at its worse during Halloween: too old to wear the costumes, not too old to want the candy. They were much too sophisticated to watch a Santa Claus movie, but they allowed themselves to stay as long as they made some noise.

Sitting between the brash noisy punks and the quietly awed 2-year-old was the perfect spot. I watched vehicle of the title transform from vintage luxury train to roller-coaster to funicular. I watched the gruff ghost hobo supply the macabre quality necessary to all Christmas stories--it being a ghostly, menacing time of long nights and long memories. The nasty teen inside pointed out the moments when Robert Zemeckis' startling technique failed--when the animated children had vacant, unfocused eyes or plastic-looking skin. The younger kid inside was charmed by the North Pole village--a Mont St. Michel rising from the ice, as if designed by red-brick crazed Victorians.

The Polar Express churned up some depleted reservoir of Yuletide sap inside me. This weakness for the holiday is a congenital birth defect inherited from my Christmas-crazed mother, the Bipolar Express. As for the birthday boy, there's no way his birthday is close enough to Christmas for him to be robbed of presents a month later. His faith in Santa will probably remain intact for a long time.

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From the November 24-30, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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