Co-Written and Directed by Robert Zemeckis
On Christmas Eve, a magical train takes a young boy on an adventure where he learns about bravery, friendship, and the wonders of Christmas.
In my opinion, the term “instant classic” gets overused. Few films in the history of cinema have risen to that level. Most of the times it is used on movies that strike at a good cultural moment or are just impressive in the moment but have nothing that sustains them even as little as a year later in the public consciousness.
The Polar Express, however, is one of the few that can sustain itself on its own merits rather than feels of the moment. It is a simple story with a simple message that pulls you in and reminds you of the season. The film is not a mindless Christmas story but rather one with a message. There are no jabs at anything. If anything, it encourages you to embrace the inner child and the trappings of the season.
The story is simple and I daresay wholesome. There is so much of substance in this film. It is about the power of wonder and of belief and things greater than oneself. It is about faith and holding on to that inner child and just maintaining a sense of wonder about life.
As said before, bravery and friendship are a part of the story. The group of children central to the story must do the right thing and deliver the proof to the front of the train that the little girl whose ticket was missing does belong there. This is not as simple as walking from car to car but rather is a journey through a fantasy world filled with unusual characters. They must confront their fear to help their friend.
The Polar Express is beautiful. I have said in previous posts that I have an issue with CGI movies. They tend not to age well as technology advances but this one bucks the trend. I think that is due in large part to it mimicking the appearance of the book which inspired this film. The film looks like those wistful Christmas images that populate the cards you send to relatives and that is the style of the images in the book as well as here. That definitely gives it a look that can withstand technological advancement for an extended period.
The visuals are stunning and give this film a magical feel. They take full advantage of the medium using swooping cameras and grand snow-covered vistas and a level of detail not possible in standard animation and set of visuals not achievable in live action. The hot chocolate opener is stunning. It uses the CGI technology to create one of the coolest serving scenes ever to hit the screen.
The music is amazing and sets the mood of a Christmas fantasy. If you listen to the songs and close your eyes the notes suggest a brightly lit tree with presents beneath. You can see the snow falling gently and hear a train whistle in the distance.
The train itself becomes a fantasy world as the story progresses. The moments on top of the train with the hobo as the children trek to get the girl her ticket are not only haunting but dramatic. There are moments throughout that will stay with you.
Tom Hanks pulls an Eddie Murphy here and takes on multiple roles as not only the train conductor but as Hero Boy’s father, the hobo encountered on top of the train, a Scrooge puppet, Santa Claus, and even the Narrator. What you will notice there is that of the five listed characters, only one has a name. Such a thing is common throughout the film. There are only five or so named characters in the film. Most, such as the main, are called “Hero Boy” or “Hero Girl” or when it comes to Steven Tyler, they are referred to as Elf Lieutenant and Elf Singer in the credits. Neither onscreen nor in the credits are most specifically named. It allows you to identify with them and put yourself in the story. They become more identifiable.
Some have used Tyler’s appearance in this film to take a swipe. It is nothing bad and serves as a nice joke for older members of the audience. I found it funny and cute. I am sure at that point he had some grandkids so I cannot blame him for being willing to do it. It is not a gratuitous use of a celebrity either.
But the film is not all fun and sappiness. It ends on a bit of a somber note as the narrator laments that as the years went by fewer and fewer of his friends could hear the ringing of the bell until he was the only one. He is saddened by their loss of belief and sense of amazement. They entered adulthood and lost their inner child while he managed to hold on to it. We should all take that message there to heart.
The Polar Express is a family film with Christmas at its center. It is about the wonder and the power of the season. It is about friendship and bravery. It is a sweet story with beautiful animation that is sure to please. I recommend it highly.