The Polar Express (2004) [Blu-ray]

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Part of a festive series of Christmas-themed reviews at Taking The Short View

This is a late-running postscript to the festive-themed series of reviews – the sort of tardy arrival that the very punctual train guard of The Polar Express would find entirely inexcusable, I’m sure.

I happened upon the film when it was showing on ITV2 a few days after Christmas. Specifically it was the scene that I’ve since dubbed “the flight of the railway ticket”, in which the train ticket that the young hero is holding is snatched from his hand by the wind and flies off to be lost in the surrounding forest. Here, it’s whipped up into the air by a pack of running wolves and then intercepted by a swooping eagle; we sit on the bird of prey’s shoulder as it soars over the tree tops and then plunges down the face of a waterfall on its way to a high rocky eyrie, then continuing on and finally ending up back in the hands of the hero on the train. It’s the sort of one-take seamless sequence impossible to achieve by any means previously, and therefore is very much a bravura showcase for the ground-breaking CGI technologies being used in this film by director Robert Zemeckis. It was enough to persuade me to pick up a bargain copy of the Blu-ray to watch properly in full a couple of days later.

When this film came out (worryingly, seven years ago!) I seem to recall it had a lukewarm reaction from audiences, who found its predilection for such technological indulgences rather off-putting. In particular, I remember much criticism of the dead eyes and waxy faces of the computer-rendered human characters – and its true that these are far from perfect impersonations of their human counterparts. But perhaps that’s less of a problem now than it used to be: we’re more used to CGI characters and even the biggest and best modern examples of these animated films (such as this summer’s The Adventures of Tintin) still fall short in this department and have made only minimal inroads into overcoming the realism threshold. And actually, I’m rather pleased – the one thing that would freak me out would be a computer generated character totally indistinguishable from the real thing!

As a result the popularity of The Polar Express like that of certain other films (The Shawshank Redemption comes to mind) seems to have increased in leaps and bounds as it has found its proper home on VHS, DVD and with copious television reruns, allowing parents and children to bond over the inevitable pre-Christmas showings. All the most recent reviews and ratings I can find for the movie these days seem amazingly positive and glowing.

And I’m in complete agreement. I loved this film and found it genuinely charming. Part of the reason for that reaction is that the film is so refreshingly and utterly earnest in what it’s doing: there is no ‘edge’ or ‘side’ to this film, no separate strand to appease the adults, no mocking meta-humour or over-done saccharine schmaltz. It simply tells the story of Christmas from a child’s eye view, albeit a child who is on the verge of concluding that Santa Claus does not exist and thereby in danger of losing the magic of the season once and for all – which puts it into something close to The Wizard of Oz or The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe territory. The film, likewise, is for all children on that cusp of losing childhood wonder: and it seeks to rebuild their sense of imagination by giving them photo-realistic proof not only of the existence of Santa, but also providing the answer to the perennial question “how does Santa get all those presents out on Christmas Eve?” Children (and adults!) with even an ounce of belief in their bones will be treated to the proof of their own eyes as they are transported to Santa’s North Pole base of operations and given a giddying tour of the innards of the massive industrial machine that allows the Father Christmas, Inc. operation to fulfil its annual contractual obligations with those nice children who have kept off the naughty list.

As well as retelling and endorsing the oldest Christmas myths, the film also grafts on some new ones of its own: the legend of the Polar Express, the journey to the North Pole, the magical tickets with their mysterious half-completed punched messages, and the characters of the ticket inspector/guard and the hobo who melts away into the snow – all creations of children’s novelist Chris Van Allsburg from whose novel the film is based. I can entirely see these new elements becoming a part of the more widely-received Christmas legend, as they are utterly charming and also provide some lovely parables and life lessons about growing up while remaining young at heart and true to yourself, encapsulated in the effective revelation and moving proof of who can and who can’t hear Santa’s sleigh bells.

At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.

All of this is set against enough spectacle, music and dance, and action and excitement to satisfy even the most easily bored of young children. The train is sent plunging down sheer drops, around cartwheels and skidding across sheer ice lakes that inevitably start to crack under the weight. You really haven’t lived until you’ve seen a steam train perform a handbrake turn on ice and plunge through the narrowest of crevices to perfectly pick up its tracks again; if only Virgin, South West Trains and the rest could perform even 1% as well in real life, the world would be instantly more magical not to mention tolerable all year around. I confess, I love trains in movies: give me From Russia with Love of the Rathbone/Bruce Terror By Night on TV and I’m a happy man. I’m almost tempted to declare the snowbound Murder on the Orient Express 1974 Albert Finney film a near-perfect Christmas movie in its own right as a result of this love, so it helps that so much of this film is set aboard the most lovingly indulged and realistically rendered steam train of recent years.

Tom Hanks takes many of the roles in this film, and to be honest he’s not as varied vocally as he probably likes to think he is – the characters that he voices all distractingly sound like Tom Hanks. But his physical performances are exemplary: I hadn’t realised that he was providing the motion capture for the lead child character, as the rendering is so believably authentic for an eight-year-old (the voice is provided by a much younger actor.) And the motion-capture really does present itself well here, offering little details and adding telling quirks to the characters than no computer animator would ever think to introduce otherwise. It’s a true actor’s performance, just like Andy Serkis achieves in The Lord of the Rings, King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the entire cast does in Smurfahontas (otherwise known as Avatar.)

Throughout, the film looks incredible – especially in high-definition, where every star, every snowflake, every bit of paper punched from the ticket by the guard are sharp and clear and deliciously detailed. Once again, high-def brings out the best in digital CGI and vice-verse: the design of the film is wonderful and every frame a beautiful work of art to behold with perfect clarity, sharpness, contrast and solid blacks. This Blu-ray also comes with a generous helping of extras, although many of these centre on the process of motion-capture and may not be entirely best suited to the younger audience. No point shaking their new-found proof of the existence of Santa, after all.

It’s not a ‘perfect’ film – it will not be to everyone’s taste by any means – but for what it is, it’s hard to point out or recommend any particular area that could in fact be improved without upsetting the delicate balance of what it does do so well. I can see why this would make a more-successful-than-usual upgrade to 3D – several sequences would translate very well, I’m sure – but frankly I’d be happy if I never saw another 3D movie in my life so I was happy to stick with the original 2D for this viewing.

I’d gladly add this to any annual festive traditions, along with the equally delightful The Muppet Christmas Carol previously reviewed, both being examples of the best spirit of Christmas that includes and appeals to everyone with magic and imagination in their hearts.

Rio (Blu-ray)

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Rio is another film on the seemingly never-ending production line of family friendly CGI-animated films that seem to arrive at cinemas every few weeks.

In terms of plot, there is absolutely nothing new here whatsoever. It sticks so rigidly to tried-and-tested formula that it’s almost fun to play “spot the homage” and work out in which previous film or films the same plot device, storyline or scenario has previously appeared. The opening, for example, is pretty much Finding Nemo – although without the wheedling, annoying father having angst over his son being kidnapped as a pet macaw for humans. (Linda – his eventual human ‘owner’ – becomes the substitute for the questing father later on in the film.) Strangely the subject of Blu’s parents is never raised – they never appear (although the mother’s voice is heard off-screen) and so they never die, although when it emerges that Blu is the ‘last male of his species’ it’s pretty much clear that they’re long-goners just without the tears to upset the kiddies.

Blu eventually returns to the land of his birth – the rain forest around Rio de Janeiro – and quickly picks up the usual motley entourage just like … well, just like every CGI family film there’s ever been. There’s good guys, there’s bad guys, there’s even a bulldog doing a reasonable approximation of Bruce the shark from Finding Nemo, and the whole thing progresses to the inevitably satisfying happy ending.

But the thing is that it really doesn’t matter: the film’s strengths are really to do with the stunning visuals, with the rainforests and the vibrant city of Rio the film’s real stars and breathtakingly well done in high-res. There’s eye-popping vibrant colours throughout, and some wonderful Brazilian music and songs that give the film such a delightfully different flavour from the usual films of this kind that it genuinely wins you over despite how it’s in cruise control mode in other areas.

The film doesn’t overdo the celebrity voices, with Anne Hathaway on good form as the macaw’s love interest Jewel and Flight of the Conchords star Jemaine Clement doing a scene-stealingly wicked villain of the piece as the inevitably-British bird ‘heavy’, Nigel. But for my money the film hinges upon Jesse Eisenberg pulling off the Woody Allen-esque neurotic, flightless Blu at the heart of the story that makes or breaks the film: and fortunately he’s well up to the task and he and his character manage to take you along for the ride no matter how churlish you might be feeling be going in.

There’s no post-modern ironic edge, no real attempt to add ‘something for the adults’ to the film’s mix like Pixar of old would have done. It’s just a straightforward kid’s film that adults will enjoy (or not) at the same basic level: as part of an undemanding but fun evening of family entertainment. If you need something with intellectual heft then give this one a miss; but if you just want to sit back and enjoy with your brain in neutral and drink in the music and gorgeous visuals, then it would be hard to find better this week.

If nothing else, it’s a delightful antidote to the chilly autumnal weather outside, and the overload of Hallowe’en fare on the television!