ITV1: Saturday 12 December, 2.40pm
A young boy lies in bed on Christmas Eve, hoping – rather then believing – that he’ll hear Santa’s sleigh bells. After all, his encyclopaedia describes the North Pole as a stark, barren land devoid of life, and he’s overheard his parents whispering about ‘the end of the magic’. He’s reached that awkward ‘Santa agnostic’ age. It isn’t sleigh bells that awake him.
It’s the foundation-shaking lightshow outside his home announcing the arrival of the Polar Express, a monstrous old steam engine that takes sceptical children to the North Pole. Seeing is believing. And there are some beguiling sights to be seen in this spectacular fantasy for children. The CGI animation deploys a ‘Performance Motion Capture’ technique (basically a sophisticated form of rotoscoping) which means that it looks super-sharp, Final Fantasy-fashion – so real it’s unreal, eyes too glassy, body movements too smooth.
It also allows Tom Hanks to provide the voices and be the model for six different roles, including the train conductor and the ghostly hobo. The sentimental seasoning might be a little sweet for some tastes. But the set-pieces are sensational: the singing-dancing catering staff, the vast herds at Caribou Crossing, the crazy incline at Glacier Gulch, the collapsing ice on Frozen Lake, Santa’s army of elves. And the train tracks running over the Arctic Sea is the kind of powerful dreamlike image that vindicates digital animation. A winter wonderland indeed and – as you can imagine – the end credits go on forever.