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Villainy! Have politics hijacked 'toons?

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Did you think this year's multiplex controversies ended with Election Day and the relegation of "Fahrenheit 9/11" to the back bins of the video store?

If so, think again. Now people are buzzing about several new family films.

One is "The Incredibles," where some see a "social Darwinist" agenda. Another is "The Polar Express," starring a computer-generated clone of Tom Hanks and, some allege, the message that "believing is beautiful," regardless of whether it's attached to anything real. I doubt if "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" will rouse partisan anger. But in today's polarized climate, who knows?

At first blush, it's hard to imagine anyone objecting to "The Polar Express," adapted from Chris Van Allsburg's bestselling children's book. It's about a lonely boy who's taken to the North Pole on Christmas Eve by a mysterious train conductor, who gathers emotionally needy kids on his way to Santa's workshop.

But in the "culture wars" age, issues swirl as ubiquitously as the snowflakes around Santa's beard. One issue is the "Polar Express" view of Christmas, bedecked in exclusively secular terms: It's loud about presents and decorations, silent on religious meanings.

And then there's the film's ultimate message to the main character - summed up in the word "believe," punched by the conductor on the lonely boy's ticket as a reminder of what's important in life. The boy's big mistake has been losing his faith in Santa Claus as he grows older.

The movie's big mistake, according to some critics, is illustrating the importance of faith by hooking it onto Santa, who - let's face it - doesn't exist. This may bother religious viewers who consider faith too important to fritter away on myths.

Those to the left of the political spectrum - perhaps unable to let go of the political season - are also irked by the message they see embedded in the movie: that facts and logic can't hold a candle to "believing."

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