The Polar Express: If Everyone Didn't Look So Creepy, This Would Have Been A Major Hit
"The Polar Express" (2004), directed by Robert Zemeckis based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg, is one of the most controversial holiday films ever made. Usually you don't think of holiday productions as controversial, but this one managed it because of the type of animation used. As the first feature to use live action capture animation techniques, it enchanted some viewers and creeped out others. Always, though, you have the reassuring presence of Tom Hanks to keep things from getting out of hand, and over time, many have come to accept and even enjoy the somewhat awkward movement of the characters.
|A smile of satisfaction|
It is the 1950s in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A little boy wants to believe in Santa, but he can't find any proof in books or magazines. As the night draws on, though, he goes outside and finds a mysterious train. The conductor says it is the "Polar Express" headed to the North Pole to visit Santa. He boards the train, and it heads through various environments, some quite hostile.
|A happy little girl with her ticket|
There are other children on the train, including Billy, who is from the same hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The conductor comes through and punches the children's tickets that appear in their pockets. A girl's ticket, though, gets lost, and the conductor takes her on the roof of the train. Finding the ticket, the boy takes it up to the roof to give to the conductor, but runs into a hobo who claims he owns the train. The hobo helps him complete his mission just before the train enters a low tunnel that would have knocked him off the roof.
Winding up in the train's engine, the boy finds the girl driving it. The engineer and fireman, she explains, are fixing a light. The boy gives the girl her ticket.
|Beautiful railroad cars|
When they arrive at the North Pole, Billy is alone in the observation car because he does not want to meet Santa due to his background of bad Christmases. The car gets unhooked, and the car drifts to industrial areas of Santa's workshop, visiting various parts of Santa's operation such as the Wrapping Hall and a warehouse. Ultimately, they all get back to where they are supposed to be via airship.
|Wolves await in the forest|
Santa gives the boy his choice of presents as "The First Gift of Christmas," and he chooses a silver bell that he saw fall off of Santa's sleigh, which he puts in his pocket. After Santa leaves on his journey, though, he loses the bell. They then return home.
The next morning, his sister Sarah finds a present for him hidden behind the tree. It turns out to be the bell. Both he and his sister hear it ring, but their parents do not, because they no longer believe in Santa.
|The sound of Christmas|
Tom Hanks voices the Conductor, Santa, the Hobo, the Narrator and other characters, while Peter Scolari, Hanks' old pal from "Bosom Buddies," voices Billy, and Josh Hutcherson is the boy. Eddie Deezen, Nona Gaye, Tinashe and Meagan Moore all provide vocal support for the other characters.
There isn't much of a plot, but, then, the source book was only a 32-page picture book, so making an entire feature out of it at all was a bit of a stretch. Basically, the boy boards a train that goes where it is supposed to go, and then returns him home. If you watch this for the story line you are bound to be disappointed. You have to be open to the occasional thrills and chills associated with the ride, the sheer oddness of the entire experience, the beautiful winter scenery which is sure to put you in the holiday spirit even if you view it in July, and the feeling the film gives you about the holiday season.
|There is no question that "Polar Express" has become a holiday classic|
It is a very traditional story, and the high point is the extravagant nature of Santa's abode. The magnificence of it is rooted in the realization of childhood memories and the wish that reality would conform to our own hopes and desires. That the real world might bend to our needs, even just for that one special day, is what gives "The Polar Express" is this film's sole reason for being.
|Tom Hanks helped create all three of these characters!|
The animation used by Castle Rock is so life-like in some ways that you will be confounded at whether it is real or not. However, while it is good at capturing larger movements, tiny facial expressions are beyond it. The characters wind up looking stiff and unhuman. Once you accept that, though, you can sit back and enjoy the technical wizardry that makes the characters real, but not real. It portrays almost a twilight zone of existence, between the living and the dead, which works with the story as being somewhere between dreams and reality. You are meant to feel disoriented and on a different plane of thought and emotion, and to a large degree the awkward animation works quite well. The old Rankin/Bass specials worked because they explicitly were not real and thus just a warm-hearted story, while this type of animation confuses the issue, creating a sense of imbalance and unease which works on the trip north.
|The train approaches its destination|
A 3D format was introduced for this film, and the IMAX 3-D version plays annually at IMAX theaters even though the film has been released on 2-D and 3-D Blu-ray and regular DVD discs. The transfer to video was gorgeous, this film looks spectactular on a good home theater set-up. There is a Polar Express ride at SeaWorld Orlando during the holiday season each year as well as various other theme parks. A lot of detail went into the train itself, which is closely modeled after a train in Michigan.
|Now that's a tree!|
Looked at solely as a piece of animation, the film is not very impressive except on a purely technical level, where it was cutting edge at the time but since has been surpassed. The results of the motion capture process used are too close to reality in some ways, and too far away in others. The problem with this is that most people don't go to a feel-good holiday movie to be made uncomfortable. However, solely in the context of this film, interpreting the entire Polar Express ride as a kind of dream, the animation works quite well, even spectacularly. Many people are willing to go with it, and because of that the film has become a continuing cult hit.
|Thank you, Santa|
Below is the trailer: