Friday, December 9, 2016

The Polar Express (2004) (Movie Review)

       Life is full of changes, and growing-up has its up’s a downs. My personal transition from Elementary school to Middle school was kind of rough, and a time when I shut myself out from other things. Strait to the point, this was a time in which the Christmas season meant very little too me, and I had pretty much lost all its magic. Then in 2004 a little animated movie came out called “The Polar Express”, and needless to say, this film helped reignite that warm magical spark, which I had lost. Now “The Polar Express” has never been regarded as one of the great holiday classics, and has received mixed reviews, but it’s got fans, and some would regard it as a “small” yuletide classic in its own right. I’ll admit the movie is far from perfect, but it’s still very special to me, and is personally one of my absolute favorite Christmas movies that I love watching every year. The movie is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who’s responsible for some of my favorite family adventure films including “Back to the Future”, “Monster House” and “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit”, and this film is yet another great one to add to his resume.  

       Naturally, the movie is based on the children’s book of the same title, which incidentally is a book I’m quiet nostalgic for. I remember my parents read that book to me every holiday season. However, even with my love for the source material, I never thought they could do a proper book adaption, especially considering how short and strait forward the story is. For those of you who don’t know, “The Polar Express” is the tail of a young boy who’s slowly falling out of the holiday season. Then on one magical Christmas Eve night, he gets whisked away on a train bound for the North Pole. Through his experience journeying to the Pole he rediscovered that magic spark, and in a sense had his “faith” restored. I can actually relate to the kid in the film, because that’s how I was, and it was through the experience of viewing the film that I found myself gradually tiptoeing back to my love for the holiday again. Personally, that’s what I take away from this movie ... the experience. Where other Christmas movies have great moral values, or are really funny, or very nostalgic, “The Polar Express” is the only one that makes me feel like I’m experiencing the holiday.

     The storytelling is light as air, and the atmosphere is just magical. I also respect how this film took the mythos of Santa and turned it into a challenge of faith, which some kids can probably relate to in their own general way. Having said all that, the movie would probably be stronger if it was a direct to TV special like “The Snowman”, because a theatrical movie needs to be padded out in order to be feature length. While I still love the overall experience of the movie, I’ll admit that the detours are very obvious. There are some action scenes thrown in revolving around the train getting derailed, and those moments do conflict with the films simplicity. To be fair, those action detours are still done well, and can be exciting to watch, but it does feel like the animators are trying to promote a theme park attraction at times. Now for as padded as the movie can get, it at least maintains the spirit of the source material, unlike say the movie adaption of “The Cat in the Hat”, which filled its run time with dry toilet hummer, modern day references and obvious commercial tie-ins. “The Polar Express” at least sticks to its time period, and is trying to be something meaningful.

     Some may argue that it’s still a little manipulative, like some scenes are added in just because most classic children’s movies have scenes of the sort. For example there’s a random scary moment involving a puppet of Ebenezer Scrooge coming to life which has nothing to do with anything, and is basically just there so the movie can have a scary scene. Maybe there’s a little bit of foreshadowing here, because Robert Zemeckis next animated Christmas movie would be “A Christmas Carol”. Well, clichéd or not, I do love the majority of scenes in this film, in fact, it’s one of those movies I love watching just to re-experience select moments. One of the most inventive moments happens when the hero boy loses his ticket, which gets blown off the train leading into an amazing tracking shot following this ticket as it blows through a mountain side and back on board the locomotive. Tracking shots are impressive enough in live action, but for the animators to create a long take with no cuts on a computer is really something to admire. Some of the random moments also help create an otherworldly atmosphere that makes the train feel all the more magical. For example, the lead boy frequently encounters the ghost of a homeless man, but only he can see him. We’re never given any clear answers about this character, but his presence gives the train a more mysterious yet lively feel. I especially love all the little details, like this one moment in the opening when the boy boards the train, he looks over at his house and a strong gust of wind gives the illusion that his snowman is waving goodbye to him, little touches like that are wonderful.

    For some reason, the scene that always stands out to me the most is when a lonely boy sings about the simple joys he desperately wants to feel around Christmas, which leads into a duet between him and a young girl. It may seem just a little corny to have these children signing, but I just love this song, I love the melody and really love all the colors and visuals that are displayed in this moment. It’s simply a touching little scene with these two kids, and once again it just adds a little more magic to the experience. On that note, the music in this film is outstanding. The score composed by Alan Silvestri is one of the most magical and breathtaking scores I’ve ever heard. The Polar Express theme song is very catchy, and I also love this song titled “Spirit of the Season”, which definitely puts me in the holiday mood. Also, just about every classic Christmas song ranging from Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” to the Andrew Sisters “Winter Wonderland” can be heard in the film. The song “Believe” performed by Josh Groban is personally one of my favorite modern holiday songs. It’s hard to explain but this song just lifts my spirit and really gets me in the “feels”. The only song I didn’t care for was that silly “Hot Chocolate” number, which wasn’t an awful scene mind you, it just didn’t do much for me.

     Now it’s time talk about the characters, who add another rich flavor to the film. I like that we never learn their names, their just kids with distinct character traits, which help them stand apart from each other. The lead boy is like the everyday person who’s wide eyed and observes all the magic around him. The hero girl always takes charge, and acts out of pure faith, which puts her at odds with the hero boy who’s on a journey to rediscover his. There’s a “know-it-all” kid, who’s basically a walking dictionary, and finally there’s a lonely boy who though the experience gains the gift of friendship. Each child has their own arch, each identifiable and I like seeing their friendships bloom over the course of the journey. I especially love that the hero girl is African American, which makes her relationship with the lead boy feel very unique. It would have been so easy for the animators to make her a pretty Caucasian girl that looks like a perfect match for the lead boy, but by giving her a different ethnicity, it makes their friendship feel unconventional, all the more genuine, and it’s even more special considering that the film is set in the 1950’s. Of course I have to mention Tom Hanks, who’s terrific playing various characters throughout the film, ranging from the train conductor to Santa Clause himself. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something about this films portrayal of Santa that has this real presence to him. I’ve been around the block with different portrayals of Santa in various Christmas movies, and while this obviously isn’t the absolute best, he still feels the most mystical in this film than any other portrayal I’ve seen. While the movie makes it clear that Tom Hanks is just playing several different characters, I’d still like to believe that their all the same magical entity taking on various forms. That would have made more sense to give Tom Hanks all these roles if there was something connecting them all together. 

    Now let’s talk about the other obvious highlight of the film, which is the stunning 3D animation. While I regrettably didn’t see this movie in 3D I was still very impressed with the artistry of the film. However, I can still imagine the transporting effect the 3D adds to the experience. The colors and designs in this movie are just wonderful. Plus there are several individual shots that look like pictures I could frame and hang on my wall. The setting of North Pole is arguably my favorite I’ve ever seen in a Christmas movie. Many of the buildings are shrunken down to elf size, and there’s multiple colors coming from the chimneys. There’s a great segment near the end in which three of the kids get lost at the pole, which leads to some awesome locations, and terrific set pieces. The only time the animation suffers is with the human characters, who occasionally look like marionettes. This was the first animated movie to combine motion capture performances with the animation, and while it’s distracting at times, there’s still some great detail in regards to the human features, and it obviously can’t over shadow how stunning the animation is overall.

    For me, the best way to describe this film is like going to bed one night, and having this beautiful dream that takes many wild and magical twists, turns, then when you wake up you get this warm feel that you embarked on this enchanting adventure. From beginning to end, the movie makes me feel like I’m living a dream revolving around the Christmas season, and I really can’t think of any other movie that creates a feel as unique as this. Like I said in the opening, “The Polar Express” is far from perfect, but then again no movie really needs to be. All that matters is how much you take away from the experience, and in this regard, I received one of the most magical holiday movie experiences I could possibly ask for. The colors are beautiful, the music is fantastic, the premise is unique, the atmosphere is great, and the 3D animation is just dazzling. Honestly, films don’t always need a stellar story, sometimes I just want to experience something, and “The Polar Express” is a film that I look forward to experiencing again and again every year.

                                        I give “The Polar Express” 4 ½ stars out of 5.



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