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The Polar Express (2004)

The Polar Express: An IMAX 3D Experience,

Journey Beyond Your Imagination

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 0 minutes

US Certificate: G UK Certificate: U

Whatever your opinions on Robert Zemeckis, you can’t say he’s not ambitious when it comes to animation. His last toon, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, remains one of the most ground-breaking animated movies ever to have hit the big screen. ‘The Polar Express’ might not be quite as good as that one, but it’s every bit as innovative and determined in its bid to push toon technology to new levels.

Based on the classic children’s book by Chris Van Allsberg (who also wrote the novel behind ‘Jumanji’, in case anyone’s interested), it tells the story of a young ‘un who’s having a bit of trouble believing in Santa Claus. He makes his little sister lay out the customary batch of milk and cookies on Christmas Eve, lies awake at night suspecting festive foul play, and has even gone to the effort of compiling a scrap book of clippings he thinks disprove the Jolly One’s very existence. He’s in for a shock, however, when a magical locomotive trundles to a halt outside his front door, and he’s invited to travel up to the North Pole to be shown the true meaning of Chrimbo.

All well and good, you might think, but what’s so special about ‘The Polar Express’ that makes it stand out from every other animated release from down the years? Well, it’s the first flick ever to be brought to life entirely by a technique called “motion capture”. It’s the same procedure used to turn Andy Serkis into Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and involves hiring real thesps to act out the story before using state-of-the-art software to turn their performances into animation.

The main thesp in question here is Tom Hanks, who plays six different characters in the film, including our young hero, the train conductor, and a certain rosy-cheeked gentleman in a red suit (who, a little disappointingly, looks as if he’s been on a bit of a diet). Hanks’ performance is difficult to gauge, not only because you can’t actually see the real him, but because there’s just so much else going on on-screen. But the man’s name on the poster instantly lifts the film into the realm of the big-hitters, which will ensure it’s seen by a massive audience, and it’s predominantly for that reason that his presence is a good thing – because it would be a travesty if this film wasn’t seen by as many people as possible. Hanks is big box office, and that’s what a production like this deserves.

It’s not just because of the visuals that I liked ‘The Polar Express’ so much. Zemeckis also manages to tell a wonderful story whilst steering away from making things too schmaltzy and sugary-sweet. Sure, there’s a good bit of festive cheer in there, but on the whole I was surprised at just how dark it is. There’s a scene involving battered old puppets that I found much scarier than a grown man should ever be willing to admit to and, when the North Pole elves make their appearance, I couldn’t help but think how evil their faces looked. I was reminded of The Nightmare Before Christmas, another animated festive spectacular which isn’t afraid to show an eerie side and reaps the benefits.

Using this latest development in screen technology to make a Christmas film was a sly move on the part of Zemeckis and the producers (including Hanks), as it lends the film a timelessness it might not have otherwise enjoyed. After all, it’s guaranteed to become a regular fixture on the festive TV schedules for many years to come. With the marvellous Elf also destined for such a fate, yuletide box-viewing is suddenly starting to look up.

It's Got: A slightly out-of-place song and dance number involving hot chocolate.

It Needs: Someone to teach our young protagonist that he’s not supposed to jump onto trains with strangers.


Eye-popping, exciting, and just a little bit creepy, this has to be the best Chrimbo flick of 2004.