They say it's better to travel than to arrive and that's definitely the case with the latest CG 'toon to pull into cinemas. Based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express only comes alive during the eponymous choo-choo's incident-packed journey to the North Pole. Once it gets there, Robert Zemeckis' festive fable grinds to a halt, running out of ideas and wallowing in sentiment so sickly it would make Santa gag.
Using motion-capture technology to create photo-real animation - think Final Fantasy, not The Incredibles - this costly spectacle (as high as $185 million according to some reports) will captivate infants with its bedtime-story innocence and Yule-tide cheer. But anyone older will question the wisdom of spending so much moolah on a film with such a limited target demographic. To put it bluntly, Zemeckis' movie simply isn't smart enough to appeal to both ankle-biters and their cine-savvy elders. Even Tom Hanks - digitally recreated in a variety of roles ranging from a 'tache-sporting conductor to a ghostly hobo - leaves you cold, his bonhomie dented by the freakish physiognomy of his not-quite-human counterparts.
There are spectacular sequences here: a lost ticket's fluttering journey from train window to eagle's beak, or the steam-belching loco careering across a frozen lake. But there's none of the wit that makes Pixar's product so engaging, while Santa's workshop is robbed of its magic: a soulless shopfloor of production lines, conveyor belts and fretting elves.
But what really sinks The Polar Express is its boring literalness. "Sometimes the most real things in the world are the ones we can't see," says Hanks' kindly ticket-puncher, but his words ring hollow in a film that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. Don't be surprised if you find yourself empathising with the poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks who keeps whining, "Christmas doesn't work out for me."
Visually impressive but insufferably winsome, this train shouldn't have left the sidings. A Christmas pudding that leaves you longing for New Year.