The Polar Express


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Polar Express
"The film has the stunning look of a living, breathing three-dimensional oil painting... visually majestic."

The Polar Express is a delightful film, intended for children of all ages - the cynical need not apply. It is straightforward, brilliant, and slightly creepy, told with Spielberg-style earnestness and human qualities. It extrapolates wildly from the original 36-page story book, filling it with memorable cinematic moments. It integrates author Chris Van Allsberg's beautiful illustrations into the telling near-seamlessly, and like many great fairy tales, the film is not oblivious to those offbeat and scary moments of great storytelling.

It tells the story of a young boy, who has begun to question the magic of Christmas. How does Santa deliver so many presents, so quickly? All the mildly ridiculous falsehoods that we come to disbelieve, or have faith in, despite ourselves. One Christmas Eve, this boy tries to remain awake for Santa Claus's arrival, hopefully trying to prove or disprove The Man or the myth. After a brief sleep, the thunderous Polar Express stirs him, which brings all the cynical children to the North Pole to see for themselves.

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A friendly, if punctual-to-a-fault conductor invites him onboard, and soon he's on the journey which will change everything. Tom Hanks takes on the challenge of performing no less than five roles. This adds a lovely story book quality to the film, as though he is reading to children and creating the voices on his own as a parent would.

The Polar Express is visually majestic, not least the first long shot of the train itself. It towers from the top of frame to the bottom, emerging from a cloud of steam like the great ships from Independence Day in an etherial, other-worldly majesty. The film has the stunning look of a living, breathing three-dimensional oil painting, full of shadow, tonally diverse rich colour. The visual design team, headed by Spielberg regular Rick Carter, and The Phantom Menace's Doug Chiang envision an expressionistic Christmas toytown full of breathtaking sights.

Director Robert Zemeckis' CV is a respectable collection of human stories, with fantasy providing the fulcrum for his characters. The characters predicaments drive Back To The Future, Contact the atheist call for faith, and Cast Away a story of time lost and found. Each of which use special effects in servitude of the story. The film is the first to use performance capture for the length of the feature, where actors perform their work, and a computer records their movements, and mapped to a character model for CG rendering. This also allows for animators to fine-tune everything to suit the director's wishes, and to create shots of startling barefacedness.

Zemeckis uses this brilliantly conceived digital technological marvel to create cinematic droplets of gold. Like the gradual slowing down of time, the impossible camera moves (the shot from under the pages of a reference book bounces to mind!), and set pieces of pure mined imagination.

I'm astonished to say that during the action moments, the film fashions the simple setting of a train ride into something approaching the delirious vertigo-inducing intensity of Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom! Watch the design of the scene where the train skims over a frozen lake, and the ingenious solution. I roared in delight at the ludicrousness, while remained riveted at the cheerful upping of the stakes. I laughed similarly in this year's great Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, brilliantly fusing those 10-year old childlike wishes with a feel for the imaginative, fantastic and flashy. And more importantly, in The Polar Express, Zemeckis often uses his visual and directorial skill to reinforce the film's themes, and isn't afraid of being daring with his skill as a visual artist, bringing his world to complete life. It's another gentle leap for the free-flowing form that is computer animation. There's a real logic to bringing a director from another medium to cross-pollinate ideas and imagination.

Indeed, Zemeckis imbibes the film full of temporal and kinetic painter's touches, such as the movement of a snowman when the train thunders into life, waving goodbye to the boy's cynicism. There's even a miraculously conceived Forrest Gump-like shot showing us a round-trip travel ticket whistling through the air. And the moment with the discarded toys coming to life hits with stark terror and reminds us, If Only for a moment, of the swarming mummies in Spielberg's great Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

There's even a moment for a beautiful song. Alan Silvestri digs deep for his terrific score, several memorable and superb themes emerging, lots of chanting and children's choral songs, with his Spirit Of The Season cue flowing like a spirited and glorious carol.

It's precisely the blend of no-holds barred storytelling, vision, and cinematic flourishes that I became aware, around halfway through it, that I was watching a film that'll be enjoyed for years around this time. The film's central themes are about that of friendship, experience, and learning to trust one's self and others, precisely those qualities and life-lessons we associate with the holidays. Like The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory and E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial, the film uses fantasy as parable to entertain and enrich us with the power of myth and storytelling. I hate using the word classic, having only seen The Polar Express thrice, but it stirred me, enraptured me, and thrilled me in a way few films can. It is a children's film, yes, but it is not a children's film which panders, rather prefers to invite us to surrender ourselves to an extravagant visual and hearty feast, plundering our collective wish-pool and festive delights. This is the real thing, not your usual seasonal pudding of cheap jolliness.

If there's even one note of resistance to seeing perhaps the greatest Christmas movie of our time in IMAX-3D, let it be banished now. The Polar Express is one of those movies that greatly benefits from it's third dimension rendering, avoiding those "poke your eyes out" moments so common in 3D features, choosing joyous immersion instead. Just watch the golden ticket scene, or the scene in the snowstorm, which stuns with it's depth and use of virtual cinematography.

The film has been rendered to full IMAX 70mm 15-perf resolution, so the detail is sublime, smooth and yummy (there's no other word for me to describe it!) . While sitting in the cinema, I kept reminding myself that "this is only the beginning", like those lucky people who's jaws dropped at the first Technicolor or Cinemascope film used well. Finally, a 3D movie with heart and story worth shelling out for.

With the astonishing 10,000 watt digital sound backing up the superbly engineered mix, it sounds better than I could have thought it. Although The Incredibles swamped the film's takings for the first few weeks, The Polar Express found an audience in the holidays, taking a fair percentage of it's final gross on those critical 3D screens.

Reviewed on: 01 Dec 2005
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A sceptical boy rides on a magic train to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Out on re-issue.
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Read more The Polar Express reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray *****
Josh Morrall ***

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: Robert Zemeckis, William Broyles Jr, based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg

Starring: voices of Tom Hanks, Leslie Zemeckis, Eddie Deezen, Peter Scolari, Daryl Sabara, Usabella Peregrina, Jimmy Bennett, Andre Sogliuzzo

Year: 2004

Runtime: 99 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US


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