Film & DVD Review: The Polar Express

Certificate UK:U / USA:G
Running Time 100 mins

Reviewed by Patrick Harrington

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Zemeckis and William Broyles Jr., based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg.

A lot of the press attention for The Polar Express has centred on the technology behind its production .It’s the first feature-length usage of the process of Motion Capture or as the studio more accurately calls this (given the detail and complexity) “performance capture”. Actors were given costumes with sensors attached that map onto points in three-dimensional space inside the 3D computer environment. Many small points were placed on the muscles of their faces to capture every nuance of expression. The movement and expression flows and is natural but they then played with style, colour and other elements. Tom Hanks plays six parts: the conductor (that’s where he resembles himself the most closely), the boy, the boy’s father, the mysterious hobo, a Scrooge puppet, and Santa Claus. In most reviews this has been called an animated film. I don’t think that’s right. It’s certainly not live-action but I feel that it would be fairer to see it as a new medium. It’s easy to see why everyone is excited by the production process as it opens up so many new possibilities – especially as techniques develop and we move closer to ‘photo-real’ images. The process will raise ethical and even political issues in the future (but that’s another article!).

Some critics have found the film ‘creepy’ because of the mix of real expressions with not quite real representations. I can see where they are coming from – although it didn’t have that effect on me. It’s difficult to see how the fabulous artwork from Van Allsburg’s 1985 book could have been brought to life without the use of this technology. The rendering of ‘Lonely Boy’ is both subtle and beautiful. I loved the creativity displayed in the scene where a ticket is lost and is blown by the wind to an encounter with an eagle and other ‘adventures’. I also enjoyed the scene where hot chocolate is served on the train in a spectacular song-and-dance routine.

But enough of the technology – what about the story? It’s a good one. An unnamed boy lies in bed, late on Christmas Eve, entertaining doubts about the existence of Santa Claus. Like a lot of children around 8 or 9, he sifts and weighs the evidence. Then gradually he nods off. When he awakes, a locomotive has pulled up in front of his house. It’s the Polar Express, a train that makes an annual run to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. The boy runs outside in his bathrobe and slippers, and the conductor advises him to get onboard. Once there he finds other children, all wearing pajamas and all around the same age. From there, the movie unfolds as a series of adventures. There are some great set-pieces. We get high adventure, such as a sequence where the brakes fail as the train is racing along tracks that mimic a roller coaster, careening down a “179-degree grade” and racing through tunnels with a half-inch of clearance. Hero Boy and the Hobo ski the top of the train to find safety before the tunnel! The scene of an out-of-control dash with the train skidding off its tracks and going sliding out across a collapsing frozen lake is thrilling too. You will also enjoy the arrival at the North Pole, where the elves treat Santa Claus like the ultimate rock star.

The movie’s strong emotional pull stems from the way it expresses a loss of magic and wonder. It’s kind of nostalgic and wistful – even a little regretful. This aspect of the film gives it a complexity that will enthrall adults while the kids enjoy the action.

Cast & Credits

  • Body movement performers: Hero Boy/Father/Conductor/Hobo/ Scrooge/Santa: Tom Hanks
  • Smoker/Steamer: Michael Jeter
  • Hero Girl: Nona Gaye
  • Lonely Boy: Peter Scolari
  • Know-It-All: Eddie Deezen
  • Additional voice performers:
  • Hero Boy: Daryl Sabara
  • Smoker/Steamer: Andre Sogliuzzo
  • Sister Sarah: Isabella Peregrina
  • Lonely Boy: Jimmy Bennett
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