out of Five
Running time: 100
Enchanting, if disconcerting, feel-good fare loaded with predictable, wholesome messages but crammed with enough Christmas wonderment to off-set the saccharine.
The shops are filled with baubles, twinkly reindeers are appearing in gardens and lo, the onslaught of heart-warming kiddie fodder begins at the cinema. If nothing else, you know it’s Christmas when snow-filled flicks of good tidings and gosh-darn-it nice sentiments fill the multiplexes, assaulting the senses of every anti-commercial, schmaltz-intolerant viewer. Let’s face it, the entire concept of The Polar Express should have Scrooges running for the hills - but, like the high-tech love-child of The Snowman and It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s actually (whisper it), nothing short of magical.
Based On The Book
Based on the best-selling US children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express tells the story of a nameless boy (‘acted’ by Tom Hanks and voiced by Daryl Sabara) whose cynicism about Christmas and the existence of Santa Claus is challenged one snowy Christmas Eve by the arrival of a magical train presided over by a kindly conductor (also Hanks).
The train is taking a diverse group of children to the North Pole to see Santa (Hanks again), and along the way the boy will learn life-lessons from a ghostly hobo (guess who?, Hanks), make friends with a feisty girl (Nona Gaye) and an introverted boy (Peter Scolari), and maybe learn the value of Christmas.
While the cute story is nothing new, the cutting edge motion-capture animation is staggeringly beautiful and other-worldly. Hanks and gang had to wear thousands of tiny sensors to feed their physical performances into a virtual world and the resulting ‘reality’ is both unnerving and awe-inspiring. The flesh-and-bones movements of the actors combined with the smooth lines of CGI is spooky (but soon assimilated to), while Zemeckis’ expansive imagination knows no bounds with whimsical, fairytale vistas, inventive chase sequences and rollercoaster train tracks in fanciful landscapes.
A scene where a golden ticket flies out of a train window into an eagle’s mouth and soars through wintery scenery and down icy gorges is as exhilarating and jaw-dropping as any IMAX film.
Hanks, too, is unrestrained in his emoting - his squidgy, familiar face miraculously transplanted onto a back-flipping conductor, stretched into ruddy St Nick and morphed into the boxer-faced hobo and mini-Kevin-Kline–lookalike boy. His celebrated ability to pluck the heartstrings are used to full effect amid scenes that capture the full awe and wonder of Christmas - as much for naïve nippers as for regretful adult viewers who may wish they still believed that a fat man squashes himself down the chimney every year.
The only lumps of coal in this cinematic stocking are the songs – grossly cheesy and manipulative – and the inclusion of Steve Tyler as a singing elf, which shatters the suspension of disbelief. Santa’s Grotto could have looked less like Disneyland and it’s a shame the annoying kid doesn’t get some kind of comeuppance but hey, as sweet, tingly-feeling festive flicks go – it doesn’t get much better than this.
Though cynics should steer well clear, The Polar Express may pleasantly surprise those with the bah-humbug mentality while thrilling Yuletide lovers everywhere. And if it doesn’t have ankle-biters leaving their mince pie and sherry out on Christmas Eve nothing else will…