The Polar Express is a Christmas story about a growing child whose faith in the Christmas spirit and belief in Santa Claus is wavering. It's the night of Christmas Eve, and he is awoken by a train, the Polar Express, which arrives at his house and whisks him off on a timeless journey to the North Pole to meet Santa and restore his belief. On the way he meets many characters and makes some new friends and once he is returned to his home the journey remains with him for the rest of his life.
It is a story that has been told many times, in many different incarnations and many different films, restoring of ones faith/belief around the time of Christmas, but what makes this particular film stand out is its animation. Using 3D motion capture and then animating the results is a near perfect replica motion. In fact it’s almost too good, because whilst technically perfect, the movements don’t seem entirely natural within the confines of the animation; animation works on being stylised, i.e. the essence of movement, when it’s all too real, something seems to be lost. This is particularly true of facial movements and expressions for in The Polar Express, the faces, and predominantly the eyes, are almost ghoulish. However, looking past this flaw we are left with a rather simple and familiar story. The physical journey is a metaphorical trip to find one’s belief, the many obstacles encountered on the way represent innocence lost while the characters represent facets of personality; losing the ticket = losing one’s way; leaving the comfort of the train carriage to walk on the roof = taking a different path from the comfortable one; finding the ticket and returning it to its rightful owner = a small step to finding oneself on a perilous journey. The film is not inherently religious and these ideas are merely steps to a greater goal, finding that place within one’s heart to truly believe.
Most of the imagery will be lost on its target audience, because at heart the film is a children’s film; but watched with a child’s eye or with children in the room it still succeeds quite well / succeeds surprisingly well. However, there were a number of sequences that I felt were there purely to sell the video game of the same release; the roller coaster train ride, skidding on the ice, etc. instead of the action that it was intended to be. There is never any doubt in the outcome of the film and the simple message that belief can bring you magic, was a nice touch and singularly heart warming in the guise of the sleigh bell. Perhaps a few too many messages, perhaps a little long in its journey, The Polar Express, nevertheless managed to entertain my kids for its run time, even though I found it dragging in the third quarter. It is a Christmas tale through and through, filled with Christmas songs and good cheer, one to while away a Sunday afternoon, preferably near Christmas.
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