The Polar Express Review
Children will probably love The Polar Express, a computer-animated Christmas fable from director Robert Zemeckis. Younger ones might even enjoy it more than The Incredibles, which is great fun but overlong at two hours and pitched more at teenagers and adults. The Polar Express is aimed squarely at children. While grown-ups should get some entertainment out of it and at least appreciate its technical excellence, they're also likely to find it thin and sentimental. Still, if you're in the mood for a Christmas movie, it's a much better bet than the mediocre Ben Affleck comedy Surviving Christmas and anything is preferable to the appalling Christmas With The Kranks.
The Polar Express tells the story of a boy who has come to suspect that Santa Claus is a myth and that his Christmas presents are delivered by his parents. As he lies awake on Christmas Eve, hoping to be proved wrong, he hears a thunderous noise outside his window and he cautiously opens his front door to find a huge steam locomotive waiting in the middle of the street. The conductor explains that this is the Polar Express, a magic train which makes a round trip to the North Pole every Christmas Eve, taking a group of specially selected children to meet Santa Claus. He tells the boy that this year he has been invited and asks him to step aboard.
This is a simple and rather sugary morality tale spiced up with a lot of spectacular action sequences in which the train roars up and down rollercoaster-style mountain tracks and skids across icy lakes while the kids hang on for dear life. As enjoyable as some of these set-pieces are - and god knows runaway trains make a welcome change from fights and car chases - they aren't very well integrated into the story. The action scenes don't move the film along, it keeps stopping for them and I suspect part of their purpose is to pad a thin tale out to feature length.
Tom Hanks provides most of the voices, including the boy, the conductor and Santa Claus and his vocal work manages to lend the film a little gravity. Robert Zemeckis's direction is effective in places, particularly in the quieter moments but at other times he seems overly restrained and unprepared to exploit the full freedom of animation. Perhaps it's simply because Zemeckis is a director of live action films rather than animated ones, he isn't used to the art form and he falls back on his live action techniques.
Technically, the quality of the animation is for the most part excellent, as it should be with a budget of $150 million, twice what it cost to make Shrek 2. There is one major problem however: the human characters. Unlike the cartoon folk in The Incredibles, the humans in The Polar Express are designed to look as close to real people as possible. That exposes all too clearly the limits of computer animation, which is not yet up to the task of realistically recreating human beings. Even though actors were filmed and their movements motion-captured and transferred to the animated characters, they still have some of the stiff, mannequin-like qualities of video game avatars. It's most obvious on the characters' facial expressions, which look frozen and unnatural.
That aside, there's a lot to admire. The train and the wintry landscapes look beautiful, awesome at times, and the action is superbly rendered. The highlight of the film is a lovely digression where a character's ticket is blown out the window of the train and goes on a little adventure of its own. This is so stunningly done that I felt like applauding it. There are also some nice rollercoaster effects although after four separate scenes where trains or carriages career out of control up and down hills, the cynical viewer may wonder if these have been put in because they'll look great in the IMAX 3D version.
Incidentally, you can see the IMAX 3D version of The Polar Express at at the BFI IMAX cinema near Waterloo Station in London. It might make a good Christmas treat for the kids. Further information here.