Why ‘The Polar Express’ is a creepy Christmas classic

‘The Polar Express’ couldn’t get more Christmassy. It features snow, a magical train, reindeer, children sliding down an enormous sack of presents, and tap dancers delivering hot chocolate whilst singing. Whilst one might not automatically associate the last of these with Christmas, it gives the film the feel-good vibe that is absolutely necessary in any good Christmas film. I watch ‘The Polar Express’ every single Christmas, making it a sort of Christmas film by association (the same way that ‘Chicken Run’ is a Christmas film, even though there’s not a snowflake in sight).

However ‘The Polar Express’ is also deeply weird. Take the animation, for example. Several critics (and my mother) found the characters disturbingly inhuman to look at, because the style falls right into the ‘uncanny valley’: it’s not-quite-human, but it’s close enough to creep you out. Ed Hooks, an actor who teaches animators, suggests that this is because you can’t use motion capture on eyes – the film uses very detailed motion capture to ‘animate’ their characters, but this fails when it comes to the eyes, which were animated separately, meaning the eye movements can look inaccurate and jarring.

For me, however, this inhuman atmosphere only heightens the film’s mysteriousness. The male and female leads are nameless (they are credited as Hero Boy and Hero Girl), making them that little bit more unreachable, their lives comfortably unreal. The elves are nasal, harsh, and not at all cute. There’s a carriage full of broken toys riding behind the children on the train – a dark reminder of the aftermath of Christmas excess.

There’s also the curious character, played by Tom Hanks, who rides on the roof of the train. He helps Hero Boy to safety, tries to intimidate him into not believing in Santa, and disappears through the wind like a ghost. It’s difficult to tell who he represents; is he a reflection of Hero Boy’s fear that Santa isn’t real (‘you don’t want to be bamboozled!’)? Perhaps an alter-ego for the conductor, also played by Hanks (they seem to cough in exactly the same way)? Or, as a deleted scene suggests, simply the ghost of a man who was killed on the train? Amidst the simple plot of a children’s film, the man on the roof is an anomaly that I’ll never quite figure out.

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Perhaps ‘The Polar Express’ is just a little too weird, a little too creepy to become a children’s classic, but that’s exactly what keeps me coming back – there’s more to the film than just a watchable display of Christmas and all its joys. Or perhaps I continue to watch it simply because I’ve already seen it so many times; because like all the best parts of Christmas, it’s tradition.