A little boy who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus is whisked away from his home on Christmas Eve by a train bound for the North Pole. Will the boy believe when he sees St. Nick or is seeing truly believing?
Title: The Polar Express
Director: Robert Zemeckis.
Genre: Adventure, Animation, Christmas, Comedy.
Main Cast: Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Jimmy Bennett, Eddie Deezen.
Runtime: 100 mins.
IMDb rating: 6.6/10.
My rating: 8/10.
Quick summary: A sceptical young boy who doesn’t believe in the magic of Christmas has his beliefs tested on a magical train journey that sees him save new friends, learn new things about himself and have a wild adventure on top of a train on Christmas Eve!
I can’t believe that I waited 16 years to watch The Polar Express. Released in 2004 to fairly positive reviews, it has become one of the must-watch Christmas films for all movie-lovers. However, there were and still are criticisms regarding the animation and the way the characters come across on screen.
This is not a typical animation. Tom Hanks, who plays five main characters, was suited up in a leotard, covered in sensors and provided the motion sequence for the train conductor and Santa Claus among others. This was captured by 3D cameras before being transferred to the animated characters. Hanks and other adults also provided the motion sequences for the kids in the movie while using oversized props to get the movement right. While the action sequences were fantastic and the train/rollercoaster ride culminating in a cracking frozen lake was astounding to watch, some of the close-up animations of the kids was a tad creepy. Unblinking eyes and reactions that were a bit slower than normal would register a reaction from adults and teenagers and those old and sad enough to pay attention to these things.
There is one particular scene where the animation made me laugh out loud in a ‘That is terrible’ kind of way. After picking up the Hero Boy (the protagonist is not given a name in the movie, nor are any of the kids) the train makes a final stop. A forlorn looking boy refuses to get on the train but changes his mind as the train takes off. He runs after the locomotive in a clunky fashion with his right arm trailing behind him as if limp or lame. Later on in the movie the boy has the full use of both of his arms, the right as strong as the left. It just looked wrong to me and at times these glitches or errors in the transition from 3-D motion capture to the screen did take me out of the movie.
Despite the technical difficulties, at the heart of this film is a wonderful message of belief and trusting yourself. Hero Boy begins the film with the need to see Santa to believe in him. He ends with the belief in his own heart that the gift-giver is real and always will believe in him. Along the way to his realisation he meets a hobo on top of the train (again played by Hanks) who takes him on a whirlwind journey to save his friend, Hero Girl and witness the horrors of a room full of abandoned toys.
There is something in this movie for all Christmas junkies. As I said, this was my first time seeing this movie and I am glad that I got to see it now. I am old enough to notice the terrifying stare of the main characters as they peer into my soul, unblinking and unfeeling, but I am also old enough to not care and enjoy this wonderful film. The action sequences on top of the train and through the inner labyrinths of the North Pole are amazing to watch. Zemeckis and Hanks have teamed up quite a bit (Forrest Gump and Cast Away) and this third installment in their partnership shows once again the pure talent that Tom Hanks possesses. He seems to give his all in every role he plays but especially to Zemeckis.
Robert Zemeckis is widely know for his motion capture films and his fantastic ability to include the feature in his films but he is also a fantastic director of your traditional human occupied movies. He directed the Back to the Future trilogy (there is a fantastic nod to his much loved trilogy in the engine room of the train which you should keep an eye out for) and Allied (2016), the World War II set spy thriller with Marion Cotillard and Brad Pitt, showing he is not all about the animation, but kids will know him specifically for Polar Express and A Christmas Carol (2009). He also directed Welcome to Marwen (2019) and The Witches which will be released on demand here in Ireland at some stage. Both these films are a mix of live action and motion capture.
If, like me, you somehow haven’t seen this movie already then please go and give it a try. You will feel every rush of air as our hero tries to keep steady footing on board a hurtling train; you will feel a deep sense of fear as you see the ice lake start to crack; and you will stop in your tracks when Santa appears behind our Hero and gives him his own present.
I think as we grow up that we stop believing in a lot of things. The magic slowly fades away to reveal a host of secrets and well-hidden presents in your parents bedroom. This movie will remind you of the belief we once had and the belief in magic and good things that we should all try and keep in our lives.