Where’s the scariest place to go on Christmas Eve? Why, to the North Pole, of course! This is The Polar Express.
Robert Zemeckis’s 2004 festive adventure is now seen as a classic by many, myself included. For the time, the animation was often spellbinding, Alan Silvestri’s score encapsulated the wonder of Christmas, and Tom Hanks plays not one, not two, but seven roles. It’s one of the highest-grossing Christmas films of all time.
As a child, I was swept up in its pursuit of Santa and holiday spirit. The train, spectral and luminous, filled with excitement and magic, seemed like a dream. As an adult, the film’s eerie, if not horrifying elements come immediately to the fore. Dear god, the eyes… the eyes!
The Polar Express was the first entirely motion-capture picture. While a regular tool of filmmakers now, whether it’s Andy Serkis’s Caesar or Josh Brolin’s Thanos, it was still in its infancy in the early 2000s.
Its achievement not withstanding, the limitations are obvious from the off. Hero Boy looks rather dazzling, with reflective eyes and strands of hair. Then his little sister comes in with haunting PS3-era facial graphics, like L.A. Noire without any complexity above the nose.
The room soon rattles. The radiator bleeds like a steam train. The Polar Express arrives in its thundering glory; fortunately, unlike most people in reality, he doesn’t succumb to sweary bemusement at a massive locomotive barrels down his street like Inception.
Other small details raise a cautious eyebrow; the mechanical toy store Father Christmas is straight out of Goosebumps, young Billy’s home is located in a snowy wasteland, some of the kids have well-formed faces, others seem immobile behind the eyes. Don’t get me started on Billy and Hero Girl’s spur-of-the-moment solo, either.
My favourite moment in the movie is the arrival of hot chocolate, with Hanks’ breathy performance alongside waiters who appear out of nowhere and defy all laws of gravity. I sing this song every year, much to my friends’ resentment. Then I thought about scalding hot cocoa soaring across the carriage and the spate of first-degree burns that’d inevitably follow.
Let’s talk about the homeless man camping on top of the train with his gloopy cups of joe. He’s a ghost who puffs into snow whenever he feels like it or if he’s pummelled by an overpass. He tests Hero Boy’s faith, while saving him from peril. Is it a little Scroogian, in that he represents a future without belief in Santa? Is the Conductor his happy destiny?
He isn’t as nightmarish as the ‘forsaken and abandoned’ toys at the back of the train, with one grotesque puppet briefly terrorising the young lad. It joins Slappy and Dead Silence’s Billy on the naughty list.
By the time we arrive at our destination, the creepiness rises. When the trio is separated from the group, they arrive at an area echoing with Walking in a Winter Wonderland on an old-time record player, scratching and sticking like Quicksilver Girl in The Strangers.
Finally, the elves. These f*cking elves. Why do they all sound like croaky old men from New Jersey and New York, like Gremlins if they could speak English? Why are their faces one smooth texture away from YouTube’s indelible, haunting ‘I Feel Fantastic’ clip? Again, I ask, why are so many characters dead behind the eyes?
Nevertheless, in spite of its unsettling visages and sinister flourishes, we’ll continue to hop on The Polar Express; part-voyage to the heart of Christmas, part-highway to hell.