Based on a slim children’s book, this is the simple tale of a boy who has begun to doubt the existence of Santa. On Christmas Eve, however, a steam train pulls up outside his house and a conductor ushers him aboard, telling the boy and the other kids inside (stereotypes like the greedy kid, the poor boy and the dewy-eyed girl) that the choo-choo is bound for the North Pole, where they will all get to meet Mr Claus himself and hopefully discover the true meaning of Christmas along the way.
So far, so cute. What distinguishes this from other family films isn’t its well-meaning if slightly naff story, but how it is told. The film is animated – well, sort of. In a cinematic first, all the performances are by actors who acted out the parts in bodysuits covered in digital sensors, so their motions could be fed into computers and realised on screen in CGI. So, as well as the impressive backgrounds being computer-animated, so are the actors, in an attempt to make the characters as real as possible. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work – the characters (five of which, including the boy and the conductor, are voiced by Tom Hanks) look more like freaky mannequins come to life than real people, so are unlikely to instil the warm and fuzzies into the tots watching, while Santa himself, when he finally appears, isn’t fat and jolly but creepily scrawny instead.
The often jaw-dropping effects go some way to addressing the balance. As the train, en route to the North Pole, hurtles on a rollercoaster-ride track, speeding through forests and across icy plains, it’s truly breathtaking and thoroughly entertaining. It’s these effects that make The Polar Express worth catching, so while – unlike the kids in the movie – you and your family may not eventually believe, you should at least be mildly entertained.
Is The Polar Express suitable for kids? Here are our parents’ notes...
As mentioned in the review, some children may find a skinny and grumpy Santa quite frightening.