THE POLAR EXPRESS wants to be a whimsical Chrimastmas fantasy, but the spirit of Christmas gets taken for a ride and pummelled by a series of pointless, unexciting action scenes that pad the running time while adding nothing to the story.
The basic idea is simple: A little boy has reached the age when he’s starting not to believe in Santa Claus. On Christmas eve, the Polar Express shows up at his door and takes him to the North Pole, where he meets Mr. C and learns to believe again.
That’s pretty much the entire story. With some clever writing, that might have been enough for a half-hour television special, but here is no plot, no complications, nothing else to build a theatrical film on. So the only way to stretch out the feeble story to feature length is to cram the film with gratutuious visual filler: the kid gets on top of the train as it’s about to go into a tunnel; he gets in front of the train as it’s about to go down a steep incline; the train nearly crashes on an ice lake; etc, etc, etc.
But what really kills the film is its lifeless character animation. The very first shot, with the un-named boy waking in bed, is supposed to be a magical moment of anticipation on Christmas eve. Instead, when his eyes open, it feels like you’re watching RESIDENT EVIL 3: A ZOMBIE CHRISTMAS.
It never gets any better. The characters look weird or just plain bad, and the attempt at life-like computer animaton (using motion capture of real actors performances) only emphasizes the artificiality of their facial expression. It’s like watching a film of automaton pretending to be human and falling horribly short.
On the plus side, the computer-generated imagery creates some beautiful backgrounds, especially for the North Pole sequence, and one or two of the action scenes manage to be halfway exciting. The only real Christmas sentiment comes at the beginning and end, and it’s just enough to make you wish the whole film had sustained that kind of sentiment.
If you want a really wonderful Christmas movie for your family, rent A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS or even THE SANTA CLAUS. Don’t, whatever you do, climb on board THE POLAR EXPRESS.