The Polar Express

UK release date: Mar 26 2008

cast list

Tom Hanks
Eddie Deezen
Nona Gaye

directed by
Robert Zemeckis

Based on the hugely popular children’s book of the same name, written by Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express is the tale of a young boy who has become disenchanted with Christmas, in particular Santa Claus. He may only be about ten years old, but the boy has lost all belief in the existence of jolly old Saint Nick.

With the Christmas Eve arrival of the Polar Express, a train that takes children unsure about the existence of the Big Guy, that is about to change. With the help of a kindly train conductor, a trio of new friends, a mysterious hobo and Santa himself, the young boy finds his faith in the magic of Christmas renewed.

When one takes a 32 page illustrated children’s book and adapts it into a 95-minute movie, a lot of story padding is to be expected. Existing characters will have to be fleshed out, while new people and scenarios will have to be created. When said film project’s price tag runs around $170 million (plus another $100 million for advertising), one hopes that some of that money will be spent on the best screenwriters in the business.

Too bad the makers of The Polar Express didn’t realise this as well. The script, written by the film’s director, Robert Zemeckis and William Broyles, Jr. (who also wrote Zemeckis’ Cast Away), is a dud, filled with uninvolving, one-dimensional characters and a story that is so thin that you can feel it tearing apart at the seams. The new material added to the story does little to support the film’s themes and has about as much to do with the holiday as the first two Die Hard films did.

Instead of warmth and holiday cheer, we are given cliffhanger action scenes that are not only a creative disappointment, but rather disturbing since most of these scenes show the lives of the children onscreen are in grave danger. Of course, nothing is going to happen to them, but having a kid walk alone on top of a speeding train during a blizzard is hardly what I want an impressionable child to see when they go to see a film about Santa Claus.

Story and character have hardly been the selling points of The Polar Express. Anyone who has seen the film’s ads know that it’s the animation that is the hook, allegedly groundbreaking technology that captures real-life actors (Tom Hanks plays five roles, including the little boy) and sets and renders them into animation that, in the end result, are supposed to look like life and breathtaking.

Sadly, this technology is not half as groundbreaking as Zemeckis and company would like you to believe. The backgrounds, while impressive, are nothing out of the ordinary. As for the humans, well, what you have heard is true – they’re really creepy.  The eyes of the characters have deadness to them, while the facial expressions are more akin to a videogame character from ten years ago than an actual human being. After watching these creepy people for about twenty minutes, I was ready to rename the film Christmas with the Children of the Damned.

The presence of Tom Hanks is usually a sign of quality, even in the most dire of projects, but Hanks times five doesn’t necessarily equal five times the greatness. Instead, it equates to too much Tom in too short of a time frame. He tries to give the roles a needed spark, but it is to little or no avail. Hanks is a brilliant, versatile actor, but even his vast talents can’t rescue this film, his third film of 2004.

The Polar Express is the cinematic equivalent of receiving the toy on Christmas Day that has been hyped as the Next Great Thing. You eagerly open the gift, only to find that the toy, despite looking cool, turns out to be a piece of junk. If your children are begging you to take them to see this film, do yourself and them a favour and read them the book instead. What they visualize in their minds will definitely beat what Hollywood has come up with, and it won’t cost you $170 million either.

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