THE POLAR EXPRESS wants to be a whimsical Christmas fantasy, but the spirit of Christmas gets taken for a ride and pummeled by a series of pointless action scenes that pad the running time while adding nothing to the story. The basic idea is simple: A young boy has reached the age when he’s beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, the Polar Express shows up at his door and takes him to the North Pole, where he meets Mr. C and learns to believe again. That’s pretty much the entire story. With clever writing, it might have made a half-hour television special, but there is no plot, no complications, nothing else on which to build a theatrical film. So the only way to stretch the feeble narrative to feature length is with gratuitous visual filler: the kid gets on top of the train as it’s about to go into a tunnel; he gets in front of the train as it’s about to go down a steep incline; the train nearly crashes on an ice lake. And the list goes on.
What truly kills the film is its lifeless character animation. The very first shot, with the un-named boy waking in bed, is supposed to be a magical moment of anticipation on Christmas Eve. Instead, when his eyes open, it feels as if you’re watching RESIDENT EVIL 3: ZOMBIE CHRISTMAS.
Sadly, that sets the tone for the whole film. The characters look weird or just plain bad, and the attempt at life-like computer imagery (using motion capture of real actors? performances) only emphasizes the artificiality of their facial expression. It’s like watching a film full of automatons pretending to be human and falling horribly short.
The computer animation is considerably more successful at rendering the titular train. Viewed as isolated set pieces, the action sequences are technically impressive, even if their inclusion works to undermine the Christmas spirit the film wants to engender.
In other cases, the technical wiz-bang is self-defeating, as when the train?s conductor serves the kids hot chocolate in a song-and-dance sequence that might have been breath-taking in live-action but which just looks cartoony and overdone in CGI. To overstate the obvious, seeing live performers dance up the walls and do back flips down the aisle would be impressive because it seems physically impossible; watching CGI characters perform the same actions is ho-hum, because doing the impossible is more or less par for the course.
On the plus side, the computer-generated imagery creates some beautiful backgrounds, especially for the North Pole sequence near the end, and one or two of the action scenes manage to be halfway exciting. The only real Christmas sentiment comes at the beginning and end, and it’s just enough to make you wish the whole film had sustained that kind of sentiment.
If you want a really wonderful Christmas movie for your family, rent THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS or any version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL or even THE SANTA CLAUS. Don’t, whatever you do, climb on board THE POLAR EXPRESS.
THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004). Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Robert Zemeckis & William Broyles, Jr., from the book by Chris Van Allsburg. Voices: Tom Hanks, Leslie Harter Zemeckis, Eddie Deezen, Nona M. Gaye, Peter Scolari.
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