Review: ‘Polar Express’ offers uneven holiday experience

Luca Giordano
Contributing Writer

Cast member Tom Hanks attends the world premiere for “The Polar Express” at Graumans Chinese Theatre, Hollywood, California, November 7, 2004. Photo by Lionel Hahn/ABACA Press/TNS

Hot chocolate has never looked as appetizing as it does in the 2004 Christmas classic “The Polar Express,” but the movie is often criticized for its controversial animation.

“The Polar Express” walks viewers through the main character’s journey to the North Pole aboard the Polar Express train on Christmas Eve and his struggle to believe in Santa Claus. The movie’s animation lens embodies a childlike curiosity, with visuals of hot chocolate, sleigh bells and toys.

The movie shows beautiful animated sequences throughout the train’s trip to the North Pole. Most impressive of these sequences is one where a train ticket is lost and sent flying into the wind through beautiful mountain landscapes, showing eagles and wolves, until being drifted right back into the loud, chugging locomotive from where it began.

At the same time, the issue is that the movie’s animation of faces and people is terrifying at times. The animation is certainly ahead of its time, but it’s innovation comes off as weird and uncomfortable in the character animation. The facial features of characters are hyper-realistic but not similar enough to real people.

In the end, the movie is left with faces of half-humans, which can be terrifying. The uncanny valley aspect of the movie is enough for many to dismiss this movie completely, but the movie is so carefully put together that it is enjoyable when the facial animations aren’t the focus of the animation.

The movie also slows down once the train arrives in the North Pole. The North Pole scenes include a strange mass gathering of elves which is unsettling. The strangeness of the elves only elevates when they all sing in a mumbled unison choir of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

Despite odd sequences, like the elves singing or the eerie facial features, the movie always delivers something that forgives its worst moments. After the elves sing, Santa opens the door and a beautifully timed Frank Sinatra rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” plays and reinforces a warm Christmas feel to the movie.

Music in this movie is used in two ways, either through thematic background music that feeds the visuals on screen, or musical breaks in the movie.

The musical breaks are less enjoyable. Visuals of hot chocolate being served on a magical train are whimsical and majestic, but accompanied with a musical number and servers dancing around trays of hot chocolate in a train car full of children, it seems unnatural.

In comparison, the score for the movie is phenomenal. Wonderful compositions weave through the movie and feed the childlike wonders of Christmas.

A point of the movie extremely well executed is the theme of belief. The character on the roof of the train, who is focused primarily on challenging our main character’s belief in Santa, does an excellent job of what it means to believe and what one achieves from believing. It is a touching theme that contributes to the movie’s childlike wonder.

In conclusion, “The Polar Express” overpowers its dull and strange moments with beautiful storytelling and lovely animated sequences. It is a movie ahead of its time and shows issues in facial animation to back that up.

The movie is one hour and 40 minutes long. It has a G rating and is available on HBO Max, which offers a $9.99 monthly subscription.

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