Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Tom Hanks, Chris Coppola, Michael Jeter, Leslie Zemeckis, Nona Gaye, Eddie Deezen
This 2004 American computer-animated Christmas fantasy is written, produced, and directed by Robert Zemeckis. It features the vocal and motion-capture performances of Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara, Eddie Deezen, Nona Gaye, Tinashe, Peter Scolari and Jimmy Bennett.
In the late 1950s, on Christmas Eve, a sceptical young boy (Sabara//Hanks) is whisked away from his street by a magical train called the Polar Express, overseen by a strict time-keeping but friendly conductor (Hanks). On board, the boy meets other children including a know-it-all (Deezen), a recluse (Scolari/Bennett) and a kind-hearted girl (Gaye/Tinashe) who all become friends.
The conductor sees something special about the young boy and girl and as the journey takes many dangerous and exciting routes across, through and over mountains, ice-plains and the countryside, all three of them keep an eye on each other as they rocket towards their destination; the North Pole.
Once at the North Pole with the promise to meet Santa Claus (Hanks), the quartet become separated from the train as they sneak a look around the workshop, and eventually make their way out to come face to face with Santa, and our young hero must decide if he truly believes in the spirit of Christmas once and for all…
The first ever fully motion-captured film comes from the imagination of director Robert Zemeckis, adapted from the novel of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. With such a creative and imaginative director at the helm, it doesn’t surprise you to see this is fantastical journey taken where laws of physics are ignored, and the thrills, danger and excitement is heaped on sequence after sequence where it is obvious in places this has been made to profit the 3D experience on the big screen.
However, this doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of top-quality animation and the creepy-realism of the locations, the train itself, the wisps of snow, smoke and ice and the characters themselves. All are all rendered via computer animation to the point they can be 99% real, but it allows the other 1% to be escapist, thrown into danger and fantasy with no real risk to anyone – except maybe young viewers.
It will capture the imagination on first, maybe second viewing, but gradually on repeated watches, you come to see that the first 45/50mins or so is basically one long, dangerous train journey. It is also quite scary, un-nerving and perilous for our young heroes – scary hobos appear out of thin air to be in your face with demonic laughs and grins. Scary puppets are present in the rear carriage of the train that seem to have a mind of their own. The train itself is a monstrous beast that thunders towards and over the screen, and also races along the edges of cliff faces, ice lakes and mountain peaks where, if you’re not totally at ease, can be more nerve-wracking for young viewers than intended.
It edges into Tim Burton-esque surrealism with creepy imagery, peril and lots of tense moments that fail to capture a magical train journey to the North Pole but rather a nightmarish and disaster-filled ride that easily demonstrates exciting animation but loses that festive spirit in the story. Even segments in the finale at Santa’s Workshop edges us into peril and disaster, offering visual thrills as we race towards a crash or collision but are saved at the last minute. The soundtrack saves the film in places it drags; a thrilling and enjoyable flurry of music that is exciting, rousing and very bombastic with a sprinkling of festive charm along the way.
Tom Hanks does a superb job in his various mo-cap and vocal roles to keep your faith present as best he can, but it’s the opening and closing moments of the journey and the finale at the North Pole where he shines brightest – that wry, warm and witty Hanks gives us characters that are likeable and heartfelt, and his range is clearly on show. Our other supporting cast of relatively unknown actors help lend innocence to the children in their discovery of faith, friendship and Christmas cheer, while the mo-cap performances are near perfect in rendition.
So while the journey is itself not as magical as it could have been, the finale offers a few tender moments, much needed calm and a feel-good cheer as we discover what it means to believe in Christmas and Santa Claus; much more than toys and treats, but more about simply believing in all that is good, decent and honest. The message in the closing moments does tug at my heart-strings as it’s a wonderful summary of what Christmas should always be about, and how important it will be to preserve the magic for younger generations to come in a society so close to destroying it with commercialism.