A young boy lies awake on a snowy Christmas Eve, nervously waiting, desperate to hear Santa Claus arriving with his presents, just as he does every year. But this year the boy is starting to have doubts - does Santa really exist? When he overhears his parents discussing the same thing he becomes convinced that Santa is only a story. Later that night his new conviction is tested by the sudden arrival of an enormous magical steam-train right outside his front door. Spurred on by the kindly conductor, he boards the train and embarks on an amazing journey to the North Pole to see for himself whether Santa really exists or not.
"The Polar Express" is, first and foremost, thoroughly beautiful to look at. The colours glow and sparkle from the screen, every frame is packed full of sumptuous curves or majestic vistas, as though a whole series of Norman Rockwell's Christmas paintings have come to life.
The only area where the visuals fall down is in the small movements of the characters, things like expressions and mannerisms. The film uses a new motion capture technology that is supposed to convert the voice actors' studio performances into sequences of extremely lifelike animation. Despite the techies' best efforts the opposite ends up being true - the characters are often quite wooden. Some, like Santa, even verge on creepy.
On the positive side the film takes large-scale sweeping movements (such as the train zooming across a frozen lake) in its stride, something with which traditional animation has always had problems.
Unfortunately its good looks don't make up for its other failings, the most obvious of which is the lack of a tight and engaging story. Based on the much beloved children's book by illustrator Chris Van Allsburg (who also wrote and drew "Jumanji"), the plot has clearly been padded to get it to the feature length minimum of 90 minutes. There are far too many apparently pointless interludes where sketchy characters discuss vague topics that always seem to come to nothing. I can't believe that children will care about this kind of fluffy dialogue, or that adults will be intrigued by it.
There is also a good deal too much contrived "adventure" padding out the minutes. The characters are forever about to fall off the train, or out of windows or over cliffs. In small doses this would be great, adding some excitement to the otherwise chocolate box feel of the film. But the action is sometimes so relentless, one wonders if the movie shouldn't really be called "IMAX: Extreme Xmas Train Adventure" (the movie, incidentally, does have an IMAX version). And if grownups are bored by such endless action, you can bet 4-year-olds will be too.
But by far the most irritating thing about the movie is its self-conscious and pompous moral message: "belief is everything - those who don't believe are forever crippled." By elevating the boy's meeting with Santa to quasi-religious status, the movie seems to wag its finger at us - warning us of what we will lose if we ever dare doubt Santa and his elves exist. As an adult I can dismiss this sort of propaganda quite easily, but I wouldn't want it shoved down my throat. You could argue that Van Allsburg's original story is far more gentle and far less blunt, and you'd probably be right. But coming at the end of this bloated, big budget, IMAX tailored ordeal, the moral rings very hollow.- Alistair Fairweather
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