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The Polar Express Review

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by AVForums Dec 1, 2005

    The Polar Express Review
    “Journey Beyond Your Imagination”

    It's Christmas time once again and this movie has been a long time coming. The Polar Express has had more false release dates than I've pulled crackers! It is of course a movie best suited to this time of year but it was a year ago when it received its theatrical release and in cinema to DVD transitions, that is a lifetime. Anyway, it is finally available to us on our favourite little silver discs but was it worth the wait? Read on and find out.....

    Reuniting Director Robert Zemeckis with actor Tom Hanks (their other collaboration being Forrest Gump) held much promise and the source of the movie, the short story written by Chris Van Allsburg has brought the magic of Christmas to countless children throughout the world. But for those who haven't seen the movie or read the book, here is a short synopsis of the story.

    Does Santa exist? All children ask this question as they grow a little older and a little wiser and the young boy at the centre of our story is beginning to have his doubts. This could be his last year of 'belief' if he doesn't see some proof for himself and with Christmas Eve here, time is running out. Finally falling asleep the night before Christmas, he is awoken at five minutes to midnight by what appears to be a locomotive arriving right outside his front door. Investigating, he discovers this is no ordinary train but something much more magical, something named The Polar Express.

    The conductor (Tom Hanks) asks the boy if he is boarding the train, its destination being The North Pole to which he at first declines, but as the train begins to depart, the boy clambers on. Once inside the carriage he meets many other children all excited about the prospect of reaching The North Pole and meeting the man himself, Father Christmas.

    Along the way the boy meets some rather unusual characters and befriends a girl and a lonely young boy who share the magical adventures with him before they finally reach The North Pole and discover the truth about Santa Claus.

    The Polar Express is a unique film in many respects. Most obvious is the animation which is unlike anything I have seen before. The closest comparison I can make to it is the movie Final Fantasy-The Spirits Within but here the technique is taken much, much further. The film used a technique called 'Performance Capture' to digitally record the physical performances of the actors before "skinning" them with their animated forms and to be honest, it looks a little freaky to me. The animation is reaching a stage where it is beginning to look almost real, but not quite and this look lacks those endearing qualities that children's animation requires. In fact, The Polar Express doesn't really know what group it is trying to appeal to. For very young children, it contains some scenes that could be unnerving and some of the adult characters are actually quite creepy especially the tramp who lives on top of the train (Hanks again). Even Santa (yes, Hanks) lacks the friendly, cuddly albeit stereotypical look we would expect and overall there is something almost sinister about the feel of this film.

    For adults, it lacks the intelligence that would make it appealing as well as those 'in' jokes that are aimed squarely at us older folk such as those found in Toy Story or Shrek for instance. So we are left with a movie that could be described as being a jack of all tastes, but master of none. It is merely ok for all, but not really special for anyone in particular.

    It isn't all bad news though and there are plenty of positives worth mentioning. The animation of the scenery, the train, the snow and The North Pole is truly breathtaking and the lead boy (we never get to know his name) appears 'animated' enough to be likeable. The opening scene does indeed conjure up a wonderful sense of Christmas which is slightly lost as the story progresses before reappearing again towards the end. Tom Hanks as the conductor is great and they have managed to capture his mannerisms perfectly even down to the way he raises an eyebrow when he is stressed. But these points are not quite enough to raise this film to 'classic' status.

    The Polar Express is a movie that tries to be too clever for its own good. The ingredients that go to make a really good children's Christmas film are missing and replaced with a show-off of a movie. It yells “Look at me, look at what I can do!” and forgets what it is that it should really be doing, capturing the spirit of Christmas for children young and old. Not a complete failure, but The Polar Express's heart is not quite in the right place.