Quick Hit: A movie that instantly became a Christmas classic that shows some signs of aging, but still hits hard emotionally.
The story of Santa is truly an amazing one (right behind the Muppet Christmas Carol, the original special Santa Claus is Coming to Town sits as my second favorite Christmas movie). There’s something magical and serendipitous about the whole thing – every Christmas is a little different, bringing more and more to the table each year. Eventually, the most logical of children begin to doubt this magic, and I find that there is nothing more sad than this. There so little magic left in our world – sure movies like Harry Potter interject their own, but that magic is often dark and scary – whereas the magic that surrounds Santa Claus is as pure as the driven snow.
This leads to today’s film The Polar Express. Based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg, it tells the story of a boy who is losing that magic. Part of the wonder is that the children are never named, allowing children (and adults) to project themselves more easily upon the characters. The boy is beginning to doubt the existence of Santa, and has begun to spread that doubt to his sister as well. That’s when the Polar Express shows up outside, in a shower of animated glory. The train looks like it drove straight out of the book, and the doubting boy steps upon it to find other children.
The train ride is wonderful, allowing the children time to be children, but also bits of adventure to abound. In the chase of a lost ticket (in a way, the ticket is reminiscent of a certain flying feather in another Robert Zemeckis picture, Forrest Gump), the boy finds himself on the roof of the train, in the train’s engine, and attached to the front. The entire ride is eventually brought to a halt at the North Pole, where the boy finally believes once more, and then sees Santa.
Tom Hanks stars in the film and plays most of the adults, including the Conductor, the Hobo aboard the top of the train, the boy’s father, the narrator, and Santa – along with others I may have missed. Hanks, as usual, brings emotion to the role that few could – allowing us to believe in all his characters and easily forgetting they are played by the same man. You can see Hanks in each character though – his face shines through the animation, in an interesting use of the first all-digital movie.
That brings me to the animation. After all the years of improvements between now and 2004, there have been many improvements in the field of digital filmmaking, as well as digital animation. You can see it in these characters movements at times, but it mainly falls to the eyes. The eyes are the portal to the soul, after all, and you often see the emotion upon the characters’ faces stop at the cheeks, and the eyes remain the deadened pools of reflected light that they were animated to be. However, since this film was a pioneer, you can’t help but look past the faults, in the same way that when we look back at some of the first Stop-Motion Animation and marvel at the things that were accomplished (see Jason and the Argonauts).
If you want a great holiday classic, you can’t fail with The Polar Express. So grab so cocoa, snuggle in, and remember to believe. It gets an “A-“.
Merry Christmas everyone!
For more on this, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"