JUMPCUT ALL THE WAY: The Polar Express (2004)

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Tom Hanks, Chris Coppola, Michael Jeter, Leslie Zemeckis, Nona Gaye, Eddie Deezen

Written by Chris Gelderd

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.

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Watch This Space: September 21 – 27

Welcome to your weekly go-to film guide – WatchThisSpace – where we recommend what to watch in the cinema and on the television, and remind you of those brilliant films hiding in your DVD collection.

IN THE CINEMA

It’s not a great week for cinematic releases, with the highlight likely to be Dane DeHaan and Robert Pattinson starring in the latest biopic to hit our screens, ‘Life’. James Dean is the subject of this movie, as we experience a couple of weeks of the famous actor’s life through the eyes of a photographer. Is DeHaan up to the job of playing one of history’s most iconic actors? We think there is enough potential here to warrant a trip to the cinema to find out.

Alternatively, Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon clash in ’99 Homes’, which quite frankly, looks and sounds pretty dull. We could be wrong, but it’s unlikely that Garfield being evicted from his home, then working for the realtor who forced him out (Shannon), will provide much more than mediocre drama. You’d be better off catching one of last week’s releases, ‘Everest’, which we can guarantee will blow you away.

ON THE TV

Monday 21:00 GMT: Michael Fassbender has certainly made a name for himself as one of the best actors working today. So, before he takes to the throne in ‘MacBeth’, or the phone in ‘Steve Jobs’, why not catch ‘300’ on ITV2, which was actually Fassbender’s first role in a feature-length cinema release. At the same time tonight, you could go for the 90s sci-fi thriller ‘Twelve Monkeys’, starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis, on Syfy.

Wednesday 23:05 GMT: We all know that Denzel Washington is a talented actor, and now he’s a talented producer, with his latest project ‘Shame’ having been added to the 2015 UrbanWorld Film Festival. However if you are more interested in simply watching him kick some ass, ‘Man On Fire’ is the film for you. See Washington at his best on Film4, satisfying the needs of all the action junkies out there.

Thursday 21:00 GMT: Winning just one Academy Award is no mean feat, but Clint Eastwood and ‘Million Dollar Baby’ managed to scoop all FOUR major awards in 2005. If that doesn’t stir you to switch to Sky Atlantic and enjoy this boxing drama, I don’t know what will.

Friday 21:00 GMT: Sticking with the ferocious female lead, see Saoirse Ronan make her big screen break in the action-packed ‘Hanna’ on E4. Like a young, female version of Jason Bourne, the titular anti-hero is one with a mysterious and intriguing backstory, and a long line of assassins waiting to hunt her down. If this doesn’t take your fancy, you can always head to ITV2 for the ultimate classic, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, also at 21:00 GMT.

Sunday 17:05 GMT: What kind of people would we be if we didn’t offer something for the kids too? You know what, we don’t even need an answer, because we’ve got the little ones covered too. Hop on board ‘The Polar Express’ with ITV2, a beautifully animated film featuring the vocal talents of Tom Hanks.

DIG IT OUT

This is our favourite part of the WatchThisSpace section. We delve into our own DVD collection and pick out some amazing films, that may not instantly spring to mind when you’re stuck for inspiration to make your movie night a success. Maybe you’ve never seen a film that we pick – or even heard of them for that matter – but you’re gonna have to trust us on this one, and Dig It Out.

The Jungle Book: Disney really are going all out with their upcoming movie slate, and last week we were enthralled by the first trailer for Jon Favreau’s live-action reimagining of ‘The Jungle Book’. This was my favourite film as a child, so I am beyond excited for next year’s star-studded attempt. But, I cannot imagine anything improving the 1967 classic, so I say “forget about your worries and your strife” and settle down for some nostalgic, animated fun.

Saving Mr. Banks: In the same vein, Disney also announced plans to start work on a ‘Mary Poppins’ reboot/sequel, so what better time than now to dig out this 2013 effort. Emma Thompson wonderfully portrays P.L. Travers, the author and creator of the iconic nanny, whilst Tom Hanks features as Walt Disney himself. ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ is a delightful film that we think you will enjoy, and watching this film might even enlighten you as to what Travers herself would think about this recent news. 

Fruitvale Station: What a week it was for trailers huh? Rocky Balboa returns to our screens for ‘Creed’ in February of next year (Novemeber 2015 if you’re in the USA), where he becomes trainer to the son of his old friend and rival, Apollo Creed. Michael B Jordan will take to the ring for what is sure to be a hard-hitting performance, but did you know, Michael B Jordan and director, Ryan Coogler, have worked together before? Well, check out ‘Fruitvale Station’ for a hint of what the pair can do when they combine – a true story based on the tragic events leading to Oscar Grant III’s death on New Year’s Day, 2009.

Chronicle: So it’s no secret that Josh Trank’s ‘Fantastic Four’ reboot didn’t quite live up to expectations, with critics dedicating much of their summer to trashing the film.  However, I urge you not to discount Trank’s directing skills, as only a few years ago he directed this fantastic, sci-fi sleeper hit. This film takes a look at the results of three friends obtaining super powers after a strange discovery, showcasing just what Trank can do. If you needed more reason to dig it out, ‘Chronicle’ features star of this week’s ‘Life’, Dane DeHaan, in one of his best roles to date, and that man Michael B Jordan too.

This week’s WatchThisSpace was compiled by Jakob Lewis Barnes and special guest Hamish Calvert, of HCMovieReviews. Get more from HC by checking out his movie blog or his Twitter account.