The Polar Express-2004
Scott’s Review #800
Reviewed August 8, 2018
The Polar Express (2004) is a modern entry into the annals of holiday film history. Along with treasures like Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch, and all the other standards, this film has become a popular one to watch throughout the season. The film is not exactly like the others, since it is the first of its kind to incorporate live human characters animated using live action motion capture animation. The mood of the film is mysterious, edgy, and with a dark tint, so jolly it isn’t, but compelling it is, and visually is a marvel.
The story is as follows- on a snowy (naturally!) Christmas Eve, a young boy living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is doubtful of the existence of Santa Claus. When a steam locomotive suddenly appears outside of his house, he curiously boards the train to find a mysterious conductor (Tom Hanks) manning the train. As the train rolls away the boy meets two other children on board and stops for another one, also reluctant to get on. They begin a dazzling, frozen adventure to the North Pole with the promise of receiving the first gift of Christmas from Santa Claus himself.
The main reason to recommend The Polar Express is simply for the gorgeous visual treats offered. In 2004 the film was a unique experience and I fondly recall sitting in a dark movie theater observing the film for the first time. There was a magical element to the surroundings, combining intrigue and fantasy that still holds up well. For adults I do not think the film is at all scary, but I have heard some reviewers complain that the moody ingredients are a bit frightening for children so there is that concern.
A major component is the mixture of human beings and animated tools. The familiar actor who everybody knows is Tom Hanks as the conductor. Therefore, to sit back and observe the character is a wonderful thing- is it really Tom Hanks or is it an animation? Certainly it is ultimately both, but the fun is in the observation and wondering how the film makers created this experience. And listen for Hanks in other voice performances throughout the film.
The story (or fable) itself is warm and fairly predictable in nature. But, of course, being largely made with kids in mind, this is to be expected. There is never a doubt that the boy (interestingly never given a name) will ultimately believe in Santa after all and live happily ever after. The magic is in the details, though- the boy’s journey to this realization is peppered with fun and creative richness- the little girl’s floating ticket and an ornament falling off a Christmas tree are good particulars.
Director, Robert Zemeckis, and Hanks worked closely together in Forrest Gump (1994) so the pair are familiar with each other, creatively speaking. Hanks undoubtedly had much input into the decision making and it shows.
I do not personally rank The Polar Express (2004) among the best of the best of holiday film offerings, but I support an occasional dusting off of this work for viewing pleasure. Perhaps over time the animations may become dated or seem less dazzling, but the film is still to be appreciated for its creative elements. The story is nothing spectacular (in a way Scrooge for kids), but makes for a pleasant family viewing experience.