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Hero Reader: Well, I… I want to believe this is a good film. But..
Hobo Dusty: But you don’t wanna be bamboozled. You don’t wanna be led down the primrose path. You don’t wanna be conned or duped, have the wool pulled over your eyes. Hoodwinked. You don’t wanna be taken for a ride, railroaded. Seeing is believing. Am I right?
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Chris Van Allsburg(book), Robert Zemeckis (screenplay), William Broyles Jr. (screenplay)
Stars: Tom Hanks, Nona Gaye, Eddie Deezen, Peter Scolari
Release Date: November 10, 2004
Run time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
On the night of Christmas Eve, a steam locomotive passenger train known as the Polar Express stops at the house of a boy who is growing skeptical about the existence of Santa Claus. The conductor says the train is traveling to the North Pole, and the boy, although reluctant at first, climbs aboard and meets a spirited girl and a know-it-all called Garrison. The train then stops to pick up a boy named Billy. At first, Billy refuses to board, but he changes his mind just as the train starts to leave, prompting the boy to apply the emergency brake. Billy is allowed on, but decides to sit alone in the observation car. The children are then served hot chocolate by a team of singing and dancing waiters, and the girl saves a cup for Billy. The conductor and the girl go to give Billy his cup, but the boy notices that the girl’s ticket has not yet been validated. When he tries to take it to the girl, the wind takes the ticket to the wilderness, but it soon finds its way back into the train; after the girl discovers that her ticket is missing, the conductor leaves with her. Presuming that she will be thrown off the train, the boy finds the ticket and traverses the rooftops of the train to find the girl.
The boy encounters a mysterious ghostly hobo that takes him to the engine, where the girl has been put in charge since the driver and fireman are busy replacing the headlight. As the train continues on, it moves at an extreme speed due to the cotter pin shearing off, and the train starts rocketing down Glacier Gulch. Once they reach a frozen lake, the fireman uses his hair pin to replace the new cotter pin and the driver narrowly gets the train onto the tracks on the other side of the lake after the ice breaks.
Once the boy and the girl are safe, the conductor takes them back to their seats. They soon find Billy singing to himself at the end of the caboose. The train arrives at the North Pole, where the conductor announces that one of the children will be chosen to receive the first gift of Christmas from Santa himself. Seeing Billy still alone in the observation car, the girl and boy persuade him to join them. However, the boy accidentally uncouples the car, sending it hurtling along a route towards a railway turntable inside Santa’s workshop. The children make their way through an elf command center and a gift-sorting office facility, where Billy finds a present in his name, before being dumped into a giant sack of presents, where they also find Garrison. After the sack is loaded onto Santa’s sleigh, the elves escort them out before Santa and his reindeer arrive.
A bell flies loose from the galloping reindeer’s reins; the boy initially cannot hear it ring, until he finds it within himself to believe. He returns the bell to Santa, who selects him to receive the first gift of Christmas. Santa agrees to let him keep the bell, and the boy places it in his robe pocket. As the children board to go home, the boy discovers that he lost the bell through a hole in his pocket. The boy arrives home, and the conductor wishes him a Merry Christmas. He awakens on Christmas morning to find a present containing his lost bell with a note from Santa. He and his younger sister Sarah joyfully ring the bell, but their parents do not hear it because they do not believe in Santa. The boy reflects on his friends and sister eventually growing deaf to the bell over the years as their belief faded. However, despite the fact he is now an adult, the bell still rings for him, as it does “for all who truly believe”.
I really enjoyed The Polar Express and it is easy to understand why the film has become Christmas classic in the nearly two decades since its original release. The movie still looks fantastic, even today, with its use of “performance capture,” which merges live action performance with animation. The effect in the film is that the artwork from the source material book appears to come to life on the screen. The characters in the movie simultaneously look real, and not real, and I found this to be just the right vibe for the story. There is enough reality in the look of the characters for the story to feel immersive but just enough difference to allow a necessary suspension of disbelief.
There are numerous action scenes in the film which stand up well against the test of time. In one scene, the train ride has the look of a roller coaster and it looks fantastic. In another, the children find themselves in a de-coupled passenger car that rolls away and also goes on a bit of a ride. The small visual details in the movie are done exceedingly well, too, whether that be Hero Boy’s snowman waving at him in the background as he boards the train or seeing Santa’s reflection in a silver bell at the North Pole. Everyone involved with the look of the film should be extremely proud.
Tom Hanks provides most of the performances in the film, from Hero Boy, to Hero Boy’s father, the conductor, the hobo, and Santa Claus himself. Most of the time, anyone familiar with the actor can hear him in the performance, if they listen well, though he does a lot of fun changes with his accents and inflections. The biggest exception to knowing when Hanks was performing was the protagonist Hero Boy. I thought while watching the film that I was hearing a child actor.
The film’s music, like its visuals, was excellent. The Polar Express theme song is catchy, lyrically fast-paced yet learnable, and fun – just exactly the right type of song for a movie aimed at small children. The “Hot Chocolate” song is even sillier and is accompanied in the movie by acrobatic train car servers. The movie also gave us an emotional ballad, “When Christmas Comes to Town,” at a turning point in the movie when the Lonely Boy, Billy, finally begins connecting to other children on the train, namely Hero Girl. The film also provides a Christmas party song by Steven Tyler and another ballad by Josh Groban as the credits roll. From top to bottom, the film’s soundtrack is outstanding.
As for the story itself, the film makes a couple of changes from the book that ultimately make it work in the film medium. It might sound counter-intuitive to say this about a Christmas movie, but the introduction of creepiness and scariness – elements not present in the book – are why the story is so compelling. When watching the film, the audience is never allowed to feel at ease or complacent. Whether it be the larger recurring threats – such as the fear of being bodily thrown from a moving train for want of a ticket, or an encounter with an enigmatic hobo ghost, or the various near train derailments – or whether it be the smaller unease of grown men raising their voice at children, one never quite feels comfortable during the film until it ends. That unease creates the sense of movement and adventure for the film. The story wisely never pushes any of that discomfort too far. If the conductor raises his voice, he softens it moments later, just as the frightening hobo ghost also continues providing assistance and safety. It’s all really well done.
Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) directed the movie and deserves a ton of credit for putting all of this together. If you are keen eyed while watching the movie, you will notice that he also hid a flux capacitor easter egg on the train. As time – or the non-passage of time, at least – becomes a story element, perhaps this is the explanation.
The Polar Express has deservedly earned a place as a holiday movie staple, with a timeless magical story, and performances from the filmmakers and cast that deserve continued praise.