Top positive review
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Really encapsulates the Christmas spirit.
on 31 August 2012
Whenever office or pub conversations turn seasonal this film is always mentioned as a favourite along with The Muppet Christmas Carol and National Lampoon's Christmas vacation. I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't like it although the negative reviews suggest that there must be a few out there. For me, this hits the nail on the head.
The film opening perfectly recreates that interminable wait on Christmas Eve when a child is desperate for Santa to come but the clock stubbornly refuses to move. Additionally, our hero is tortured by doubts about Santa's existence. He finally drops off to sleep and is woken by a train stopping in the street outside. Having been persuaded to board by the guard he meets other children who are all on the train because they are in need of a life lesson. There's a girl who needs to believe in herself, a boy who is an irritating know-it-all and a poor boy who needs to know that Christmas can come to the disadvantaged.
During the journey our hero has an adventure involving a rooftop encounter with a ghostly hobo and a rollercoaster ride over a mountain and across a frozen lake. The hobo encounter is mildly spooky and the conversation he has with the boy may go over younger children's heads. For older viewers the hobo adds an extra strand of interest to the film. The rollercoaster ride involves the seemingly out of control train careering crazily over a mountain range before slithering over a frozen lake...which starts to crack. Excellent tension builder even for older viewers who know that the train has to escape to continue its journey. The journey culminates at the North Pole at Santa's industrial complex where some of the children get lost before being deposited in Santa's giant sack on his sleigh where they disembark, meet Santa and go home.
The film is expanded from a very thin book and lots of scenes have been added to give depth, motivation and detail to a simple and charming story. The motion capture animation works really well, I did not see any jerky or unnatural movement. The characters do lack expression but the film is sufficiently engaging to compensate for this. The scenery is excellent and the sequence where the ticket flies off the train into the woods showcases the artistry perfectly. Santa's workshop has been likened to a northern mill town with its utilitarian red brick architecture and industrial atmosphere but is what probably appears in some form in most kids' heads when they try to work out how Santa manages to make and despatch such a vast number of toys every year. Likewise the giant sack of presents and the fact that the time is 11:55pm for hours up until Santa appears. The elves aren't particularly cute but then there's no rule that says that they should be. The colour palette at the North Pole is very limited, mainly red, green, white and grey including the elves outfits. This makes the North Pole a surprisingly downbeat looking place.
The film has also been criticised for being too scary for youngsters. There are a couple of scenes which might frighten very young or very sensitive children. The encounter with the Scrooge puppet springs to mind. That said, my daughter has happily watched this film since she was three and my kids will normally watch it 3 or 4 times each Christmas.
The only part of this film I'm not keen on is the saccharine sweet duet between a couple of the characters mid-film. I almost docked the film one star because of it. Still, it only lasts a couple of minutes and then it's back to the action. There's also a lively and upbeat Jazz and Tap ode to chocolate early in the film when the kids are served hot chocolate by magical dancing waiters. This song is capably dispatched by Tom Hanks who voices all the male adult characters except the engineer and the fireman. I believe that Mr Hanks was instrumental in getting this film made so he can be forgiven for wanting to play such a big part in it. Director Robert Zemeckis slips in a couple of sly references to his earlier films. The music accompanying the rooftop sequence was originally used in Back to the Future and the scene where our hero pulls the train whistle exclaiming "I wanted to do that my whole life" is a straight lift from Back to the Future III. The train whistle sounds the same too.
Trivia aside, this film has all the ingredients for a Christmas classic. A journey of discovery for the main characters, lots of great Christmas imagery that most people will identify with and a message of hope and spirit. It's enough to make almost anyone believe. If you are planning to expand your seasonal film library ready for this Christmas you should seriously consider acquiring this film. At £5, it's a steal.