Back in 1898, a short British movie entitled Santa Claus delighted audiences with its ingenious "trick" photography that allowed a jovial Saint Nick to fill children's stockings before magically disappearing up a chimney. Since then, popular film-makers have struggled to find novel ways to reinvent the story of Father Christmas on screen.
Bizarre highlights to date include the Mexican exploitation director Rene Cardona (best known for the unforgettable Wrestling Women vs the Aztec Mummy) teaming Santa with the Arthurian wizard Merlin to do battle with the devil in the 1950s weir-die Santa Claus; and the self-explanatorily entitled Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which sent him off into outer space in the 1960s. More recently, the producers of the Superman movies gave us Dudley Moore and an army of robotic reindeer in the extravagant festive turkey Santa Claus: The Movie, while Tim Allen endured strange genetic mutations in The Santa Clause, a 1990s Christmas stiff that played like a cross between Miracle on 34th Street and The Fly. Yuck!
To this twisted tradition we may now add The Polar Express, a special effects extravaganza that brings Santa to life via the miracle of "performance capture" technology. Bridging the gap between live action and animation, this technique (which maps the movement of actors on to the digital matrixes of computer-generated characters) will be familiar to fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which the actor Andy Serkis brilliantly manipulated the digitally animated Gollum. The Polar Express takes things not one but two stages further by presenting a world entirely populated by "performance captured" virtual characters, and (for those with access to an Imax cinema) rendering it in eye-popping 3D.
The result is a mind-boggling technological bonanza that exists in a dreamlike limbo somewhere between enchanting childlike cartoonery and oddly alienating computer wizardry. It's a world in which people look enough like real people to be really rather weird, but not enough to be entirely "realistic". With their plasticised mouths and not-quite-right lip movements, the cast of The Polar Express resemble distant relatives of the "photo-realist" Japanese sci-fi animation Final Fantasy, while the land they inhabit evokes the illustrations from a children's novel brought to life by the oddly mechanical imaginings of Terry Gilliam. Very strange indeed.
Adapted from a book by Chris Van Allsburg (which is far better known in the US than in the UK), The Polar Express concerns the adventures of a nameless boy who doubts the existence of Santa Claus and who is duly transported to the North Pole on a phantasmagorial steam train. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, who helmed the ground-breaking live-action/animation hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, this $170m romp (which has underperformed in US cinemas) features a digitised Tom Hanks in no fewer than five principal roles, ranging from "hero boy" to crusty old Santa. As a jet-powered, computer-generated roller-coaster ride, the film more than earns its keep, offering plenty of high-speed vertiginous thrills as the titular train plummets at knuckle-chewing speed down mighty slopes, and skids and slews across vast icy plains. In the most audacious sequence, which calls to mind the floating feather opening from Zemeckis's wonderful Forrest Gump, a lost ticket is twirled and swirled by winds and wild beasties as it is chased on a breathtaking ride around the runaway train. For this sequence alone, The Polar Express may be hailed as a visual feast. Elsewhere, the endless parade of looping track dips and sweeping chute falls suggests a cynical attempt to prepare the audience for a tie-in theme-park ride.
Far less impressive are the "deeper" elements of a story that attempts to mine a rich seam of Yuletide goodwill (the sound of Christmas bells harks back to Frank Capra's lesson that "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings") but in fact offers little more than a production-line imitation of life. It doesn't help that the songs are such duffers, with the eminently forgettable efforts of Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri being sadly overshadowed by the melancholic echoes of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Troublesome, too, that when Santa finally shows his face, he resembles the shiny-skinned clockwork caricatures that annually grace the windows of Selfridges - this despite being animated by the facial manoeuvrings of an A-list Hollywood star.
Whether such artistic shortcomings will deter the youngsters to whose attention-deficit cravings the film (perhaps wisely) plays is a moot point; I suspect there's enough zip-zang-boom antics on screen to keep most viewers from noticing the total lack of substance. Ultimately it's diverting rather than rewarding viewing, offering ample seasonal thrills (some surely too big for faint-hearted toddlers) despite a creepy, icy absence where the warm Christmas stuffing should rightly be.