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Should I Watch..? 'The Polar Express' (2004)

Updated on April 6, 2022
Benjamin Cox profile image

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Poster for "The Polar Express"
Poster for "The Polar Express" | Source

What's the big deal?

The Polar Express is an animated fantasy festive film released in 2004 and has been recognised as the first film to fully utilise all digital motion captured performances. Based on the children's book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, the film was directed by Robert Zemeckis and stars Tom Hanks in several distinct roles. The film concerns a young boy who, on Christmas Eve, is invited on board the titular train to the North Pole in an effort to help him regain his belief in Father Christmas. Made for a then-record budget for an animated film of $165 million, the film grossed over $300 million and has become a firm favourite and regular Christmas viewing. The movie is dedicated to voice actor Michael Jeter who died the year before the film's release.


3 stars for The Polar Express

What's it about?

On Christmas Eve, a young boy lies in bed waiting for hear Santa's sleigh bells. He has begun to have doubts about whether Santa is real or not but on this Christmas Eve, something unexpected happens. An enormous steam train rolls up the street outside the boy's house and he is invited on by the Conductor who informs him that the train is the Polar Express and is heading to the North Pole. On board are other children including a young girl and an irritating now-it-all as well as Billy, a lonely child from an apparently impoverished background.

After a number of incidents along the way including the girl losing her ticket, the train losing all control over lakes and down mountains and the boy skiing on the roof of the train with a mysterious hobo, they eventually arrive at the North Pole to discover Santa's vast workshop which is populated by elves. But is any of this real and will anything make the boy believe in Christmas once again or is everything just a dream?


What's to like?

It can be easy to be swept up by the mystical magic of The Polar Express which has more than festive spirit up its sleeve. The animation is bewitching to see, almost too lifelike on occasions as the train rumbles through mountains, forests and epic valleys blanketed by snow. The characters too have a magnetic quality with the children looking especially believable amid the fantastical goings-on around them. In terms of the quality of animation, the only other film I can think of to look more realistic is the beautiful-but-dull Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Hanks' recognisable voice does a lot of good work as the various characters and brings an extra dimension to the film.

But no-one can accuse this film of being dull. There are moments that would really benefit from an IMAX showing such as the roller-coaster descent of the train from the mountain-top or the staggeringly real flight of Hero Girl's lost ticket as it descends from a bridge back to the train via wolves, eagles, snow flurries and convenient hill slopes. And at the North Pole, the film explodes into colour as the lights of Santa's workshop banish the cold winter night away and dazzles us with lights, song and energy. Like I said, there are many reasons why this makes perfect Christmas viewing.

The depth and quality of animation is stunning but a bit too clinical, lacking soul
The depth and quality of animation is stunning but a bit too clinical, lacking soul | Source

Fun Facts

  • Hanks and Scolari both appeared in an early Eighties sitcom called Bosom Buddies which was the first significant role either actor had received at that time. It concerned two male friends who had to dress in drag in order to live in an all-female apartment block. It was cancelled after two seasons.
  • Steven Tyler cameos as the singing elf at the North Pole. His daughter Liv Tyler played a rather more important elf - Arwen - in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
  • At the North Pole, elves watch a TV screen showing a young boy named Steven in New Jersey terrorizing his two little sisters. This is a nod to Zemeckis' friend and mentor Steven Spielberg, who grew up terrorizing his two younger sisters in New Jersey.

What's not to like?

Call me an old Scrooge but there was something missing from the movie. It has all the snow you'd want and all the trappings of a traditional Christmas movie including the heart-warming finale and moralising about the Christmas spirit. But it feels clinical somehow, as though produced in a sterile lab without a single bit of tinsel to be seen anywhere. I respect it as a technical exercise but it's not quite what I want from a Christmas movie. And another thing - what does the film mean by "Christmas spirit"? Is it simply believing in Santa? Does the Nativity and the birth of the baby Jesus not figure into it somehow? Don't get me wrong - I'm as agnostic as they come and proud of it but it just didn't sit right with me. I half-expected to see that damned Coca Cola truck driving past in the background somewhere.

Plenty of films have a Christmas theme - Hollywood has long cottoned on to how successful and popular they can be ever since Capra's It's A Wonderful Life - although it took years before even that film became a festive favourite. And I do understand why this film has such a cult following, seeing as it ticks off every Christmas cliché like an elf checking Santa's sack for presents. But the spirit of the thing is a little lacking and personally, there was much left unexplained by the time of the film's climax.

The film's use of motion capture allows the characters to mimic the appearance of the actors themselves such as Hanks (centre) as the train's guard.
The film's use of motion capture allows the characters to mimic the appearance of the actors themselves such as Hanks (centre) as the train's guard. | Source

Should I watch it?

From a technical point of view, The Polar Express is a winner with beautiful animation, wonderfully lifelike characters and plenty of heart. But the story is too weak to sustain a film of this length and for all the talk of Christmas spirit, the whole thing felt more like a technical exercise to see if it were possible to animate a film this way. Am I being too harsh on it? Possibly but I'm afraid that I simply didn't feel as warm to this film as I might have.

Great For: young children, steam train enthusiasts, fans of the book

Not So Great For: older viewers, lovers of traditional animation, anyone who can't stand Tom Hanks

What else should I watch?

As far as Christmas movies go, there truly is only one place to start and that's the film that really kick-started the genre. Of course, there had been Christmas films before 1946's It's A Wonderful Life but none had as much charm, power and warmth as Frank Capra's schmaltz-fest. However, it is not the smiling jolly film you might expect as James Stewart undergoes a terminal decline which almost ends in suicide, were it not for an unusual fellow by the name of Clarence...

These days, Christmas movies are big business but rarely do they make quality viewing. The exception to the rule are the wonderfully funny Elf starring Will Ferrell as a human raised as an elf at the North Pole trying to reacquaint himself with his long-lost father. Much funnier than I expected and certainly better than disposable Christmas garbage like Four Christmases and Fred Claus.

Main Cast

Tom Hanks
Hero Boy (motion capture), the Conductor, the Hobo, Santa Claus, Narrator
Daryl Sabara
Hero Boy (voice only)
Eddie Deezen
Know-It-All Kid
Nona Gaye
Hero Girl (voice)
Hero Girl (motion capture)
Peter Scolari
Billy The Lonely Boy (motion capture)
Jimmy Bennett
Billy The Lonely Boy (voice)
Michael Jeter
Smokey & Steamer (motion capture)

Technical Info

Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis & William Broyles Jr. *
Running Time
100 minutes
Release Date (UK)
10th December, 2004
Animated, Family, Fantasy
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Song ("Believe"), Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing

* based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg

© 2015 Benjamin Cox


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