Register  |   Log In  |  
Sign up to our weekly newsletter    
Empire Magazine and iPad
Follow Me on Pinterest YouTube Tumblr
Trending On Empire
The Future Of Film
The 100 Greatest Video Games
Robin Williams: The Big Interview
Kevin Feige:
My Movie Life

The Marvel supremo's pick of the flicks
Want To Be An Empire Journalist?
Find out how here
Unmissable 5 Stars
Excellent 4 Stars
Good 3 Stars
Poor 2 Stars
Tragic 1 Star

Tom Hanks
Josh Hutcherson.
Robert Zemeckis.
Robert Zemeckis
William Broyles Jr.
Chris Van Allsburg.
Running Time
101 minutes

Gone Girl
4 Star Empire Rating
3 Star Empire Rating
Last Impresario, The
3 Star Empire Rating
I Origins
4 Star Empire Rating
4 Star Empire Rating

Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, The
5 Star Empire Rating
Two Days, One Night
5 Star Empire Rating
Some Like It Hot
5 Star Empire Rating
A Hard Day's Night
5 Star Empire Rating
5 Star Empire Rating

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

submit to reddit

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

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?

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

Write Your Review
To write your review please login or register.

Your Reviews

Average user rating for The Polar Express
Empire Star Rating

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

You turned out in your hundreds and thousands, and here are the results... Browse the full list

Empire's Interstellar Newsstand Cover Has Arrived
Plus a full preview of what you'll find inside our brand new issue

The Future Of Film: British Film Will Thrive (If Tax Breaks Allow)
Or how Harry Potter saved the British film industry, and could again

The Making Of The Lost Pilot: An Oral History
The cast and crew look back at the epic season opener…

Empire's Gone Girl Review
Our official verdict on David Fincher's adaptation of the best-selling novel

The Future Of Film: The Streaming Services Will Be Major Studios
(Or how Hollywood will have to start worrying about Netflix)

The Empire Podcast #129: Liam Neeson Interview
Plus Max Irons, Sam Claflin, Douglas Booth, Holliday Grainger and Jessica Brown Findlay drop by to talk The Riot Club

The Future Of Film: We'll Be Watching Films In Virtual Reality
Immerse cinema aims to become the must-have experience for the filmgoers of the future

Subscribe to Empire magazine
Get 6 Issues Of Empire For Only £15!

Get exclusive subscriber-only covers each month!

Subscribe today

Subscribe to Empire iPad edition
Get The Empire iPad Edition Today

Subscribe and save maney on annual digital subscription

Subscribe today
Buy single issues

Get 6 issues of Empire for just £15!
Get the world's greatest movie magazine delivered straight to your door! Subscribe today!
Empire's Film Studies 101 Series
Everything you ever wanted to know about filmmaking but were afraid to ask...
The Empire iPad Edition
With exclusive extras, interactive features, trailers and much more! Download now
Home  |  News  |  Blogs  |  Reviews  |  Future Films  |  Features  |  Interviews  |  Images  |  Competitions  |  Forum  |  iPad  |  Podcast  |  Magazine Contact Us  |  Empire FAQ  |  Subscribe To Empire  |  Register
© Bauer Consumer Media Ltd  |  Legal Info  |  Editorial Complaints  |  Privacy Policy  |  Bauer Entertainment Network
Bauer Consumer Media Ltd (company number 01176085 and registered address 1 Lincoln Court, Lincoln Road, Peterborough, England PE1 2RF)