Starring: Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Running Time: 100 mins
The Polar Express is an American film about a boy who, on Christmas Eve, sees a huge train pass by his house. Upon learning it is an express service straight to the North Pole, he hops on board and begins the journey of a lifetime.
In essence, there are two very distinct things to talk about with The Polar Express. On the one hand, you’ve got the fantasy adventure set at Christmas time, which starts and finishes well, but languishes in the middle, and on the other there’s the revolutionary motion capture animation that, even for a film that came out in 2004, looks pretty amazing.
We’ll start there, as that’s what really makes The Polar Express stand out. Although a little sceptical at first, I found myself loving the visual experience of this movie. The animation of the settings is breathtaking, and the motion capture used to create the main characters works incredibly well. This was the very first film to use the technology to create an entire movie, and although we’ve come further since then, it’s something that still holds up very well.
Although you may think it’s just a gimmick that has no benefits over normal computer animation, the motion capture really comes into its own in the film’s most dynamic and intense sequences. Whether it be a troop of waiters dancing around in a room, or three people holding on for dear life on a speeding train, the incredibly fluid and very realistic movements of the human characters is really something, and gives the film a lot more energy throughout.
On the whole, the film is absolutely wonderful to look at, but there is still one issue with the animation. Whilst in typical computer animated movies, we’re not looking for realism, the style of The Polar Express makes its characters’ somewhat bland and unrealistic faces stand out a lot more. Whilst it’s great to see the likes of Tom Hanks immortalised in this sort of movie, his character, along with all the others, look far too much like video game characters. They’re without a doubt human-like, but the most important element of a person, the face and the ability to portray emotions, just isn’t there, which takes quite a bit away from giving the film a deeper meaning.
Moving away from the animation now, and onto the story. There are countless movies about going to the North Pole and seeing Santa and the elves, so I was delighted to see that this film starts off with something a little different. We actually get to see the journey to the North Pole, and on something that’s not a flying sleigh.
The entire first act, in which we follow our heroes on the Polar Express train as they speed across a frozen landscape on Christmas Eve, is brilliant, as it features some properly exciting action, as well as a brilliantly imaginative way of taking us to the North Pole.
Unfortunately, however, the plot then begins to stutter in its second and third acts. Whilst still nice and fun, it all seems a little generic, and it really isn’t until the last ten minutes or so that we return to a wide-eyed and imaginative portrayal of the children’s adventure. As a result, the entire middle portion feels like it goes on forever, and doesn’t add much to the emotion or spirit of the movie at all, playing out more like a couple of levels in a video game.
The ending is a big improvement, and matches the first act’s brilliance, but I have to say that the film just isn’t as memorable or enchanting as it could have been because of its pretty stale main portion. With beautiful animation, it’s definitely an innovative movie, and still holds up quite well today, even if it’s not all there when it comes to a truly realistic motion capture movie, so that’s why I’m giving The Polar Express a 7.2 overall.