Before there was Steven Spielberg’s new Tintin movie, there was Robert Zemekis’ 2004 The Polar Express. The latter, also using motion capture technology like Tintin, was slammed by critics for its characters’ ‘creepy’, ‘mannequin’ look. In end-2011, however, the film’s look is less of a turn-off. Based on the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg of the same name, Zemekis’ film is both a traditional Christmas tale as well as moving out of its ‘totally feel good’ zone.Kids can be captivated by the performance capture visuals. But for the grown-up, this is a dark-tending-towards-light story that may not to be what they are looking for if they are looking for one of those comic Santa Claus movies.
The film is about a boy who is experiencing a wobble in his faith — in his belief of Santa — on Christmas Eve night. After checking books that would ‘prove’ Santa’s existence and not finding any proof (pity he didn’t check the internet), he glumly awaits the loss of magic that is Christmas.
Which is when a phantasmagoric train stops out of nowhere in front of his house and he is told that he is a passenger. Tom Hanks plays the too-amiable train conductor and he meets other kids on the train whose destination is Santa’s headquarters in the North Pole. Crises in the journey (a ‘lost’ ticket) as well as in belief follow. The viewer clearly gets the point: how to recover faith in a higher power. But even if he doesn’t get all the coded ecclesiastical bits, it’s a train journey to a Vegas for kids with the ‘creepy’ look that critics earlier railed about coming across as something ‘supranatural’.