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The Polar Express (2004) - film review

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Starring Tom Hanks, Chris Coppola and Michael Jeter

Christmas film review by Chris Olson

Animation finds a welcome home at Christmas, with many of the classic films in our #ChristmasFilmCountdown being animated movies. Director Robert Zemeckis has also directed another animated Christmas film, A Christmas Carol (2009), which starred Jim Carrey as the iconic humbug Scrooge. The Polar Express, which stars another comedy legend, Tom Hanks, is far less nightmarish than A Christmas Carol, and substitutes eeriness for cheeriness.

The story is of a young boy (Tom Hanks) who is on the cusp of becoming a “non-believer” - meaning he is losing his belief in Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve night, the boy embarks on a magical adventure when an immense train pulls up in the snow outside his house, heading for the North Pole. Aboard the train are other children of a similar age, as well as an enigmatic Conductor (also Tom Hanks), and a train crew of quirky characters.

This film, based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg, has an aesthetic which captures the same magic of a film like The Snowman (1982); with sweeping, snowy landscapes, vivid characters and beautiful emotional moments. The Polar Express also benefits from a touching script, mostly delivered by Hanks in his various roles, which is the perfect complement to the animation. The story unfolds with a racing pace, but never fails to deliver those heart-aching moments of childish innocence and poignancy.

There is a certain aloofness to some of the film’s characters, and the friendship which develops between the children on the train seems to intensify a little too quickly, which some viewers may find a too convenient. However, the subtle tone the film achieves and the vast scale of the set pieces are never at risk, and you do genuinely care about the mild peril which these characters start to face.

The Polar Express is a beautiful example of a Christmas film, something which will stand the test of time because it captures the heart of a story and wraps it with delicate emotion. Fans of animation will be lost in scale of Zemeckis’ film, and non-believers will find it hard not to give a mini fist-pump by the climax of the movie.


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