The Polar Express (2004) Review

RATING: 2.5/5

A doubtful little boy hops aboard a train ride to the North Pole to wonder if the mythical Christmas icon himself exists.

Some deem it as a Christmas classic, while others say it is rather dated and very standard with its delivery. For me, the latter seems more appropriate.

The visuals and effects were mixed across the board. Around the time of its release, it was deemed revolutionary with the film’s reliance on motion-capture. Though honestly, 16 years after, it did not age well. The expressions shown by the characters didn’t look convincing and sometimes it can be rather creepy if the camera held onto a face for extended periods. Funny to think Pixar films such as “Toy Story,” “Toy Story 2,” and “The Incredibles,” which that one was released the same year, had CGI models that emoted way better than the “realistic-depiction” that this was trying to replicate. Goes to show that better, isn’t always better.

With the rest of the visuals, they can be nice, detailed, and beautiful at times. The snow sparkling in the forest, the Northern Lights, the detail on the train, etc. The cinematography at times can be very good. Especially at times whenever its following a certain person or object of interest. It would follow the subject wherever it would go from A to B.

There were two main settings, the Polar Express and the North Pole. One was shown fine, while the other was majorly disappointing. The North Pole was the one that appeared decent. I’m all for seeing different interpretations and this wasn’t too bad with its city of elves. There were buildings, a large globe with t.v sets showing the kids of the world, and a present-making factory which led to the sled drop-zone. The operations of getting the sled with the presents lifted in the air and carrying it was cool seeing.

The other setting, the one which this movie was named after, was not good. When it came to the train operations, I wish one could have gotten to see more. We got to see the dancing hot chocolate chefs, the engineers, and a glimpse or two of the other cars of the train, but that was it. The film was more focused on the main boy and his two friends. One doesn’t get perspectives from the other kids. The best example was the intense rollercoaster scene. The movie tells what happened after, rather than shows during. Thus making the journey feel hollow.

The lack of depth continues with the characters. The children were the ones I have the most problem with, as they either ranged from bland or annoying. I would say the adults were the most enjoyable, they brought the most life in the film. Primarily the Conductor and the Hobo. Both of whom played by Tom Hanks who did a pretty good job.

As far as comparing the movie with the book, the movie definitely placed scenes in here that either benefited some or dragged the experience down. I mean I understand the filmmakers needed to add more substance seeing that the book was only 32 pages. Like I said, adding substance to the train operations was a good idea. But there needed to be a lot more of it. I mean the kids were given a couple cups of hot chocolate and no food, come on. The main kid having doubts and questions about whether or not everything he had seen was real, was executed blandly. The world-building of the North Pole was nice. The Hobo was a fun character and it did raise questions on who exactly he was. The film placed some background info on that Billy character, as opposed to the more crucial ones. Not for the main one which the film started with. The action scenes were nicely done, but I could see how they might have been there to spice up the source material onto the screen. In terms of differentiating from the book, I say it wasn’t handled too well. Some new elements got to shine more than the other new elements.

Pacing and editing was an issue at times. Like when the Conductor was punching the tickets in a matter of seconds. The nerdy kid in some way getting to reach the three main kids to the pile of presents faster. I mentioned before the camera tracking of certain objects was cool, but what exactly does it add? Is it to show the visually nice scenery of the woods or the Arctic? Is it to boast on the film’s technical and “revolutionary” achievements (for the time)? Also the odds of that ticket flying back to the train, with all of the mess it went through, is astronomical.

A couple times there were musical pieces, The hot chocolate one was kind of pointless. Billy’s singing was a heart-warming one. When it came to the rest of the sounds of the movie, it was decent. It for sure did the best at immersing one in the environment.

Being an achievement in the technology used in the production, can only get one so far. There were good merits. At times it felt like a Christmas epic, with the various, nice-looking locations and environments shown. The substance thrown in here, to add to the original source material, worked in some areas but wasn’t expanded upon in the others. Resulting in a Christmas classic that could have been really special if the potential was fully reached.

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