Robert Zemeckis 2004 film ‘The Polar Express’ was in the main panned by critics on release and was not as successful as distributors Warner Brothers would have liked. It has since garnered a cult following and is a mainstay of the Christmas TV listings. Based on Chris Van Allsburg’s book of the same name it was clearly aimed at the family market and it the UK received a ‘U’ (Universal) rating. Look just beyond its family friendly persona and a dark heart beats within.
For those of you who are younger than this old hack there is a possibility that ‘The Polar Express’ was the first horror film you encountered. Even though the intro to the film is a gentle family scene with a soothing Tom Hanks voiceover, it soon changes tonally once the train itself arrives.
The shaking of the child’s room and exploding radiator owe a debt to films such as ‘The Poltergeist’. This is quickly followed by a scene where the boy runs out to meet the train, as the steam clears a new character is revealed; now we’re heading into ‘The Exorcist’ territory.
So now we’ve met the train conductor, but there’s something not quite right about him. For a large part of the film the children aboard the train do not fully trust him, to the point they even think he will throw one of them off the moving train for losing their ticket. The are they or aren’t they trustworthy character is a common factor in the horror genre.
As the journey continues our hero ventures to the roof of the train; here he encounters a tramp. The tramp is sinister and seems unbalanced. On top of this he has supernatural powers and even a ghostly back story. He will later use a puppet scare our hero as he ventures through the carriage of abandoned toys. How many horror films have creepy looking old dolls that could come alive at any minute?
Once at the North Pole the horror continues. Santa’s city is a maze of narrow alleys and industrial zones. Old time carols and Christmas songs crackle across the PA system occasionally sticking on a line as the vinyl record is scratched. The elves seem gruff in their manner and not the happy bouncy elves of most Children’s fiction. Their journey through the city is fraught with danger and they even end up trapped in Santa’s giant sack (make your own jokes).
The reveal of Santa should offer some relief, but even this is a mix of slow downed action and noises. The overall effect is quite disorienting and unnerving. This is quite a prolonged scene and it’s only Santa himself that offers us relief from this moment, which it almost feels like a gift.
‘The Polar Express’ is by far one of the most special and unusual family Christmas films of this century. Its use of motion capture would even have an influence on the making of on James Cameron’s 2009 film ‘Avatar’. Truly it’s a film that deserves repeat viewings and a great introduction to the world of horror for your children.