The Polar Express is great fun. Sure its message – “just believe” – is twee. But what matters is the journey, and it's a thrilling ride which kids (of all ages) will love. Getting to the North Pole for midnight turns out to be a rollercoaster event – literally. There are some hair-raising scenes – downhill skiing on the roof of the train and a skid-pan slide on the ice for starters. And there are some chucklesome lines, amusing slapstick, and even a couple of surprisingly hummable songs. Virtually every frame looks gorgeous, like an oil painting come to life, the dreamlike colours deliberately warming our festive cockles.
But seasonal doesn't have to mean sickly. There are some quirkier moments – a carriage full of sinister-looking lost toys and a stowaway tramp who is not all that he seems. The train itself is a spotter's dream – a copy of a real-life choo-choo which even provided its own toots and chuffs.
There's much else to marvel at. There's Tom Hanks playing five characters – including the boy, the Conductor, the tramp and Santa himself. That's “performance capture” for you. All of the scenes were acted out on a soundstage, the actors' faces and bodies covered in hundreds of sensors, transformed by computers into the characters we see on screen. Who says computer effects will make actors redundant?
The Polar Express is ambitious stuff - taking on a Christmas classic, wrapping it in shiny new technology and placing it under the Christmas tree of kiddie opinion. It won't change anyone's life and doesn't have anything new to say. So, will the kids like it, or just want to play with the box? Take them and see. If you don't have any, take yourself anyway. When it shows up on telly year after year at least you'll be able to say you saw it on the big screen. And when a film looks as good as this, that's surely where it belongs.