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Film Studies 101
Reviews
STAR RATINGS EXPLAINED
Unmissable 5 Stars
Excellent 4 Stars
Good 3 Stars
Poor 2 Stars
Tragic 1 Star

FILM DETAILS
Certificate
U
Cast
Tom Hanks
Josh Hutcherson.
Directors
Robert Zemeckis.
Screenwriters
Robert Zemeckis
William Broyles Jr.
Chris Van Allsburg.
Running Time
101 minutes

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The Polar Express
A small boy is doubting Santa's existence. Then the Polar Express turns up, headed straight for the big man's home at the North Pole


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Plot
On Christmas Eve, a boy wrestles with his growing misgivings over the existence of Santa. His troubled sleep is interrupted by the arrival of a billowing steam train, ready to whisk him and other confused kiddiewinks off to the North Pole for a first-hand


Review
You may not know it, but this picturesque tale by Chris Van Allsburg (who also wrote the book of Jumanji) is now the set text for preaching the 'real meaning' of Christmas for massed ranks of American parents afraid their children might grow up. It's their Snowman, bedecked with beautiful oil-paintings of a world forever poised on the cusp of the big day - magical, sprawling images of an American wilderness both unknown and comforting.

Accompanied once again by Tom Hanks, his compatriot in reinforcing the study values of traditional Americana, Robert Zemeckis has set out to transform those lavish pages into a digitally-rendered family movie. Expanding on the thin tale (it's barely 15 pages long) by stoking the boiler of action and spinning out the visual opportunities with an honest care for the book, this is a sackful of twee, seasonal conformity delivered with rapturous thrill - a film that's both sentimental and extraordinary.

There is some dispute over whether it's exactly an animated film. All the performances are real, scanned in and relayed into rich CGI, care of a Gollum-style hi-tech formula. Hanks, in a blue leotard smothered in digital sensors, acted no fewer than five of the major roles (including the kid and, most obviously, a wry ticket inspector given his own puddingy looks) on soundstages, granting the characters genuine human movement and expression, albeit more doll-like than photorealistic. The camera moves, too, are devised as if real, functioning to the natural tilt-and-pan of humble analogue technology.

Yet all else is struck from Zemeckis and his designers' imaginations, and they touch heights of splendour not even reached by Pixar's zanier moments. The sense of the train's hurtling motion is perfection itself, with its white-knuckle plunges over impossible inclines (you've got to try it in IMAX 3D - it bends your brain). In a gentle Forrest Gump riff, a lost ticket is blown like a feather from a window to make a solo journey across wolf-haunted woodlands and icy drifts, before, miraculously, returning to the locomotive. It is the single most lyrical passage of CGI yet painted on a screen, a reminder that art and pixels are not mutually exclusive.

There's a tinge of irony in the application of this new-fangled technology, considering how it's been used to recreate an old-fashioned America via dreamscapes dripping in nostalgia. With Sky Captain, it was a mythical '30s spooked up with the shadowy licks of film noir; here it's the aching gleam of '50s small-town purity. You can almost taste the yearning in this snow-crisped Norman Rockwell landscape, untouched by the trials of progress. It's a world that won't grow up.

That's where Polar Express both disturbs and delights: it's smothered by the blanket of one-dimensional Christmas ideals, but does make you feel good. In other words, it reminds you of being a kid, fit to burst with excitement at the possibilities of paper-wrapped goodies, whether they're dropped off by a dubious fat guy in a red suit or parents determined to hold up the masquerade. 'Just believe,' we are implored; follow the party line of easy living and you'll be rewarded with huge presents.

However, you can't help but notice that the message at the soul of the movie is impaired by its own narrative: when you're taken by steam train to meet Santa, it's less a case of having to believe than a getting a heavy dose of irrefutable proof. Then again, was it all just a dream?


Verdict
For all the fairy-lit wonder, some will rail at the idea of the director of Back To The Future dabbling with such a schmaltzy tale. Cynics will sneeze in shock; children, young and old, will cuddle up and dream along.


Reviewed by Ian Nathan

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Your Reviews

Average user rating for The Polar Express
Empire Star Rating

Christmas dead-eye

One of the first all-CGI, all motion-capture animated features is a dazzling technical achievement, allowing adventurous film-maker Zemeckis to create all sorts of special effects that live action simply can’t. But inevitably all the efforts have been spent on technical expertise with precious little thought for characterisation or story. The result is an eye-catching but completely soulless Christmas story about a sceptical boy finally learning to believe in Santa Claus. And the dead-eyed... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by RJNeb2 at 00:29, 03 January 2015 | Report This Post


RE: The Polar Express

The animation looks like an oil painting come to life and the overall viewing experience is awe inspiring. ... More

Posted by chang at 09:43, 31 December 2013 | Report This Post


RE: The Polar Express

I wanted to like this, and it started so strongly, but it soon devolved into a hyper active series of increasingly tedious CGI action scenes, with any sense of wonder and mystery having dissipated back with the end of the first act. Train rides are magical and a slower, calmer, more character based approach to this story would have been cool, instead it's just jumped up with needless action and constantly busy plot machinations, and the central conceit, that this kid doesn't believe... More

Posted by King of Kafiristan at 15:56, 30 November 2013 | Report This Post


A FUn Filled Train Ride That WIll Stay With You Forever

The Polar Express Is A Heart Warming Christmas Film Which Will Lighten Anyone Who Sees It. Tom Hanks Was Incredible With The Amount Of Roles He Did As He Pulled THem Off Perfectly. The Script Was Great, SOngs Were Great, Animation Was Great!The Polar Express Takes Its Place As An All TIme Chrismas Classic. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by BenIsMovieKing at 09:55, 14 July 2008 | Report This Post


This movie is not just another bunch of humbug!

Another animated Christmas film. Directed by Robert Zemikis. Most characters acted by Tom Hanks, and what an achievement. Its dazzling animation and huggable characters just lift your Christmas spirit to the right film. Surely, it has half the charm of Miracle On 34th Street, but it's not just another bunch of humbug. Verdict) Fun for all the family, without any Scrooge ruining it. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by user2563 at 15:38, 08 January 2008 | Report This Post


RE: The Polar Express

Robert Zemeckis makes a merely 'ok' film?  The world is ending!  Technically it's impressive - the motion capture stuff is perfect; a little TOO perfect, leading to dead-eyed, lifeless characters.  It's a decent kid's film but for Zemeckis fans it's just not good enough. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Caster at 20:35, 22 December 2006 | Report This Post


RE: The Polar Express

A great little christmas film. ... More

Posted by Castor Troy at 16:45, 22 December 2006 | Report This Post


RE: The Polar Express

Watched this last night and it made me feel all christmassy. Yeah, it is one for the kids but I enjoyed it. ... More

Posted by Newander at 15:22, 22 December 2006 | Report This Post


The Polar Express

Strictly for the kids and even better at Christmas. Schmaltzy, cliched Americana. It does look good and I can imagine that taking kids to see it would be a pleasure but as a film in its own right? Not really. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by qualidad at 17:18, 23 May 2006 | Report This Post



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