Just like that, we’re 10 days into this countdown (and 10 days closer to Christmas!) I do hope everyone who’s been following along regularly has enjoyed the Advent Calendar so far, and in turn, I’m having a blast writing for you, the readers.
Movie: The Polar Express
Studio/year released: Castle Rock Entertainment (primarily), for Warner Bros., 2004
Today’s pick takes us to more of a modern-day Christmas classic film- The Polar Express, which in one of the more strange things to think about, is already 14 years old as a film. I recalled seeing this in IMAX when it first came out as a kid…and I have to say, it had some really effective 3-D, especially compared to other films at the time. With perfect acuity, I can remember the wild scene in which the train has a heart pounding race to stop on time before smacking into a herd of caribou- and how real that felt with the effects of the film. So on this review, I can at least testify to the intended effects of the movie when it was in theaters, given that many who have seen it in the years since probably know it mostly from TV airings and re-runs.
Now, there was a lot of interesting notes about this film, starting with the astounding voice acting clinic Tom Hanks puts on in performing 6 different roles. While Hanks’ voice acting resume will always be best remembered for his role as Woody in the Toy Story franchise, there’s no doubt in my mind that his performance in this film is underrated. Of these roles, Hanks most notably was the conductor- and this performance never gets old, even upon rewatching this movie quite a few times.
Another notable fact was the animation style. If you got that weird “valley of the uncanny” feeling, it’s probably because this was the first film to be entirely done in live-action- motion capture animation- the same type used to create things like Caesar in the revived Planet of the Apes trilogy a number of years later. It’s held up decently, but it’s a highly unusual animation choice which aged better on things such as the train itself as opposed to the character models themselves. If you really want an idea of how different this 3-D modeling is from the same era, The Incredibles released at the same time in theaters. You’ll notice how much more “cartoony” Pixar’s modeling was compared to this specific style if you compare the two films side by side.
Finally, this film was based off the famous 1985 picture book of the same name. I remember loving the title as a kid, flipping through the richly colored images that evoked the magic and wonder of a cold Christmas Eve full of unknown adventure. In turn, catching those specific scenes I remembered from the book was a treat, and this was not unintentional, as Chris Van Allsburg, the author, also served as an executive producer for the film.
The Polar Express isn’t some cinematic masterpiece, but it is very successful as an entertaining and engaging Christmas film that stays true to the source material that it came from, combined with some terrific voice acting (chiefly from Tom Hanks) and a very underrated soundtrack. It’s a great family pick for anyone who hasn’t seen it and for those who have, perhaps grab a mug of hot chocolate and get on board once again. You’re never too old for a trip to the North Pole.
Animation: 3-D motion capture animation. It’s in a bit of a weird spot being both a unique and highly innovative technique at the time (in fact, this was a record-breaking budget for an animated film at its release to the tune of $165 million), but also one that has an uneven legacy, particularly when it comes to character modeling. In the end, time wins slightly over innovation here, with the caveat that it did bring to life a wintry night on a train oh so well in terms of atmosphere. 3.5/5 points.
Characters: Simple book, simple cast. The main protagonist is never actually named (he’s even credited as “Hero Boy”) but he’s noted for both his skepticism in his belief of Santa Claus’s existence and his signature blue bathrobe he wears during the story, of which one pocket hole is ripped.
Accompanying him in this film are the hero girl (yes, that’s her credit too) and Billy, another boy who has the distinction of being one of only two named characters in the entire affair (and the other is the big man in red himself.) The former exhibits a powerful belief in Santa, and a kind, generous spirit but needs more confidence and conviction in leading others, while the latter finds himself in need of good companions and the assurance also that Santa is real.
Then there’s the conductor. A mysterious man with many professed years of service on the locomotive, he’s full of advice, old stories and mystery, all while serving as both the director of the train and the host to a number of young passengers. He’ll make sure the train gets to the North Pole on time too…
All in all, a solid, small cast with a few other important side characters, which would be spoilers for those who haven’t seen this film, and remembered by those who have seen this film. 3.75/5 points.
Story: Pretty simple given its source material: a boy in his apparent disbelief is shocked one Christmas Eve by the appearance of a large steam locomotive outside his house and the summons to go to the North Pole. Naturally, the film expands upon this a bit, but a simple premise with decent execution that has a faithful interpretation. 3.5/5 points.
Themes: Primarily, “do you believe?” The film is a heart-warming sort of affair in which these kids find out a lot about themselves and learn some important things about approaching life and also about the spirit of the season, and it’s really charming. If you’re looking for some mind-blowing stuff, this isn’t the film, but holiday fare rarely is. 3.5/5 points.
Don’t Insult the Viewer: Good music score, very easy for all ages to watch, a Christmas film that’s neither too preachy or too sappy to boot. It’s all around solid. 4.75/5 points.
Overall: 19/25 (76%): Nostalgia or not, this is and was a pretty fun Christmas film even now. It’s a great movie to get into the spirit of the season if you haven’t already, and fairly easy to find this time of year (December at the time of writing) to watch.
Like what you see? Big Polar Express fans out there? Leave a comment!