The Media Man Reviews: The Polar Express (Christmas Special)
Merry Christmas Eve, readers! I hope you're all feeling merry and bright and ready for the big day tomorrow. I swear Christmas comes quicker every year...
When it comes to Christmas, I love much of the Christmas media we get whether it's all the songs, the Christmas-themed episodes of TV shows we often get, Christmas themed story books or especially Christmas movies. There are many I enjoy watching year after year and many I consider my own holiday traditions. One of them is the subject of today's review. That movie...is The Polar Express.
Released in 2004, The Polar Express was directed by Robert Zemeckis, the famed director of many classic films such as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Cast Away and Forrest Gump. Starring Tom Hanks (and also produced by him too), the film was based on a 1985 children's book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg and is notorious for being one of the earliest examples of a film being made entirely with motion-capture. The film was a hit at the box office and critics mostly gave it great reviews although many often like to slam the "creepy" looking animation and even to this day, people like to joke about how uncanny it looks. Sadly, it missed out on a Best Animated Film nomination (whereas the less favourably reviewed Shark Tale got nominated...WHAT?!), something that many animation fans were rightfully irked by. The Polar Express has gone on to become a holiday favourite for many and has been viewed more favourably over the years, animation style not withstanding.
So is The Polar Express a train ride worth hopping on? Or is it best we miss this train and catch a different one? Let's grab our golden tickets and climb aboard as we ride into The Polar Express...
Section 1: The Story
They say simplicity in itself can be an art form and this movie's story proves that. The plot can be summed up as such: a boy has trouble believing in Santa Claus so he gets whisked away on a magical train ride to the North Pole. That's pretty much the plot of the movie right there. And yet this simple story ends up being so much better than it had any right to be...
First of all, the story being a magical train ride to the North Pole is absolutely perfect for a Christmas story. Trains have become heavily associated with the holiday over the years so why not make a Christmas story featuring a train ride? And because of the premise of this movie, this is a Christmas movie where it's more about the journey to the North Pole than your standard Christmas movie fare like saving Christmas from the bad guys or something like that. Heck, there's NO antagonist to speak of here. The conflict is all about Hero Boy's conflicting beliefs in whether Santa is real or not, a belief that he wants to believe in but is left unsure due to how easy it is to doubt Santa's existence. And honestly, that plays to the movie's strengths for me. You don't always need a villain to cause conflict in your story or to be the instigator of the plot. Sometimes all you need is an antagonistic force at play and you're all set. This movie wouldn't have benefitted from having an antagonist at all so it's good that they didn't have any and as a result, gave us a more unique Christmas story for a change. And the whole theme of belief hangs over the course of the movie with an especially poignant moment where the Conductor points out how the most real things in the world are the things we can't see. That is one of the biggest truths in life and an important thing to take away from this movie.
While the story is your typical "Is Santa Claus real?" kind of story, I like the way they handled it here. Sure the outcome is obvious to everyone but it still feels satisfying to watch Hero Boy go on this journey of battling his self-doubts and discovering the truth that yes indeed, Santa Claus is real. They build up to his appearance so well throughout the movie with many teases of him and some clever fake outs and thus when Santa eventually does appear, it still manages to feel like a magical moment even if we knew it was going to happen in the end. It's one of those cases where knowing the outcome of a story doesn't make it any less fun to watch.
As is, a train ride isn't enough to carry a movie so of course they add a few extra things in there to make the movie more exciting to watch, namely the action scenes. They consist of scenes like Hero Boy and the Hobo skiing down the carriages of the Polar Express to the train itself, an intense roller coaster ride down steep hills and a crazy ride across a frozen lake as they try to avoid falling into the water with the ice cracking behind them. Those scenes really feel exciting to watch and add more entertainment value to the movie as a result. The ride across the frozen lake especially is well done and is the most exciting scene in the movie for me. While those moments add more to the movie and prevent it from feeling dull, there are some moments that can feel like padding for some. Like did the Hero Girl's ticket going on this ludicrously over-the-top journey out of the train and back in really need to go on for as long as it did, and also be as laughably silly as it was? Or did we need that scene with the caribou blocking the tracks which gave us the most annoying moment in the movie with that one guy screaming obnoxiously for a minute or so to make them move? Thankfully those scenes don't utterly kill the pacing of the movie for me but I imagine for others, it can feel like obvious attempts to pad out the story just so it can reach the 90 minute mark, and this is a movie that runs for 100 minutes overall. Had I been in charge of the movie, I would've trimmed some of those scenes and added more character development, which I'll go over in Section 2.
If there's any complaints I personally have with the story, it's that the third act can feel a bit long. It feels like once the train arrives at the North Pole, there's still a lot of movie left so they have to contrive another scenario just so our heroes don't get to see Santa straight away and thus pad out the climax a bit. Thankfully it's not bad padding as it allows us to see some of the North Pole, get an idea how things work there and it gives Billy the Lonely Kid something at least. It's just that it can feel like the movie was worried it was going to end too quickly and had to add this extra stuff in order to ensure it lasted a little longer.
Regardless, I have very little complaints about the story of The Polar Express. It's pretty creative for a Christmas movie and gives us some changes to the formula that we don't often see in Christmas movies, namely the lack of an actual antagonist and the journey being the focus of it. It may have some pacing issues, but they don't take away my enjoyment of it at least...
Section 2: The Characters
The characters are certainly going to be an interesting bunch to talk about here as many of them don't even have names (or at least names revealed in the movie) and yet somehow they still manage to be memorable. Also as the movie's focus is on the journey these characters go on, we can see how the journey changes them over the course of the story.
We have our main protagonist of the movie, Hero Boy (motion captured by Tom Hanks and voiced by Daryl Sabara) or "Chris" as he's apparently named. He starts off as your average kid who enjoys Christmas but has become cynical to the idea of Santa Claus being real over time and isn't sure what to believe anymore. Seeing The Polar Express and being whisked on this magical train ride is the first step into him believing that Santa is real but naturally, there's still more he has to go through before he can be fully convinced in Santa's existence, all of which is capped off by him hearing the sleigh bells ring after being deaf to their sound for so much of the movie. Hero Boy is easy to relate to as all of us take a level in cynicism as we get older but he remains likeable due to the fact his cynicism doesn't make him overly bitter, grumpy or mean and he still has good traits in him like when he sticks up for Hero Girl because he lost her ticket and how he tries to return it to her at the first available opportunity. He's an example of how to write a sceptic without making them unlikeable and it's ultimately satisfying in the end to watch him see the truth of Santa's existence.
We have our secondary protagonist with Hero Girl (motion captured by Tinashe and voiced by Nona Gaye) or "Holly" as she's apparently named. Hero Girl is the perfect foil to Hero Boy as the optimistic, Christmas crazy one of the two who has no trouble in believing in Santa and fully embraces the Christmas season as a whole. She's also very nice and supportive to others, as evidenced with how she keeps looking out for Billy the Lonely Kid and over the course of the movie, she proves herself to be a capable leader. The climax especially showcases this as she's leading everyone back to where they started from so they don't miss Santa Claus. While her arc isn't as compelling as Hero Boy's and she might be a little too perfect, I still liked her and enjoyed her role in the story.
And finally, there's the third protagonist of the story, Billy the Lonely Kid (motion captured by Peter Scolari and voiced by Jimmy Bennett). Billy is easily the one who had the most potential to be interesting, yet falls short due to a lack of screen-time. He doesn't even get involved in the plot for the first two acts and it's only in the third act when he actively does so. As a result, he feels half-explored and woefully underdeveloped. He says "Christmas just doesn't do it for me". OK...why though? Aside from very vague hints that he's poor, there's nothing to go on here. You can't just have him say that and then not explain why. You have to explore this, not leave it vague. Vagueness works for some of the other characters, but not Billy here. Because of how under-baked he is, it doesn't really feel all that satisfying when he gets his present in the end. Just explain his situation better and we could've been more engaged with his story.
We have some secondary characters that play supporting roles in the movie. Of course there's the Conductor himself (motion captured and voiced by Tom Hanks) who is a Christmas enthusiast that also runs a tight schedule and isn't afraid to chew anyone out if they threaten to upset said schedule. He's the most entertaining character in the movie thanks to his funny dialogue and Tom Hanks's enjoyable performance as this man who clearly enjoys his job but can still feel the frustration at times when things don't go right and he can have a bit of a scary edge to him at times whenever he's mad or being cryptic. The movie would've been so dull without him, let me tell you!
We also have the mysterious hobo (also played by Tom Hanks) who is an example of how I said vagueness works for some characters. Whereas Billy is vague in a way that hurts his character development, the hobo is vague in a way that makes him interesting. He seems to be this ghostly figure that is the manifestation of people's doubts and the fact he's a ghost just adds more of a spooky mystery to him. What exactly IS he and why is he connected to the Polar Express like so? Is he some guardian angel or just a mischievous spirit? We never know, but this is one of those cases where that's for the best as he's only more interesting the less we know about him. Sadly, he doesn't really have much of a point after his first meeting with Hero Boy and kinda disappears from the movie come the third act, which makes it feel as if he might've been a last minute addition. It'd be easy to write him out of the story and not change much, but I'm glad he's here nonetheless as he's still one of the most interesting things about the movie.
Less interesting is the Know-It-All Kid (motion captured and voiced by Eddie Deezen). He's just your typical kid who thinks he's smart but really, he's not all that smart and he's more pointless than the hobo is. The hobo at least ties into Hero Boy's self-doubt and lack of belief that he's troubled by in the movie but this kid? No point whatsoever. He's a filler character and could've been dropped entirely without changing anything. Why is he even here given how pointless he is? All of his screen time could've been given to the hobo or Billy instead to further flesh them out and make more use of their time.
And naturally, we have Santa Claus himself (ALSO motion captured and voiced by Tom Hanks. Yes, in case you didn't notice, Tom Hanks has a lot of roles in this movie!). He's your typical Santa Claus and nothing really different to what we usually expect. But the build-up to him really sells the character as this majestic, almighty figure that demands respect from everyone around him and is not someone you'd dare misbehave in front of. I always enjoy the build-up to his appearance and how magical it feels when he finally does show up, which is how it SHOULD feel when Santa Claus appears.
The characters may have some issues, but they're still a solid cast overall with the main ones having decent arcs and the actors giving off memorable performances for them. They're characters worth going on a train ride with, I say...
Section 3: The Animation
Now for the part that most people make fun of in this film: the animation.
Let's get the negatives out the way first. Yes, the animation can look awkward at times. Being motion captured and then digitally animated, it can make the humans look a little off at times, there's no denying that. Also given this movie came out in 2004, CGI was still pretty new back then and there's still some teething issues that hadn't been sorted yet, namely the lack of realistic looking lighting that can make the CGI look that extra bit dated. If this movie had been fully animated rather than motion captured, it would've looked better most certainly. Also the animators have a habit of forgetting how many coaches the Polar Express is meant to be pulling as the number increases and decreases numerous times throughout the picture, going from five to twelve and it's pretty hard not to notice. But that's just nitpicking really.
Aside from those flaws, I genuinely think people over-exaggerate on the animation and I don't think it looks as uncanny as many people describe it as. Maybe because I've seen so many animated properties, I just view these people as cartoon characters rather than actual humans so they're not as off-putting to me? I dunno, but I do think that the humans don't look as weird as most others do. They at least still look like people and each character is easy to tell apart from one another so they could've looked worse, let's be honest here. They could've looked better, I agree on that, but they don't look like unholy monstrosities to me at least.
For the stuff the animation has aged well in, that's another story altogether. The backgrounds are gorgeously detailed and look very convincing whether it's the snow-covered towns and villages the Polar Express travels through, the interior of the coaches on the train or especially the North Pole. This film's depiction of the North Pole especially looks absolutely beautiful and makes me want to explore more of it. It's like this fantastical vintage village with elves everywhere, old architecture and Christmas decorations abound and it just looks amazing to look at. This is probably my favourite depiction of the North Pole and what Santa's village looks like in all the Christmas movies I've watched so far and I love looking at it every time. They also manage to make the snowy areas look and feel very cold while making the inside of the train coaches and the North Pole look and feel warmer and more comfortable by comparison.
The Polar Express itself is also a visual highlight in this movie. Based on an actual steam train known as the Pere Marquette 1225, the train itself looks incredible onscreen and the animators really make it look as grand as a train travelling to the North Pole should do. The design makes it look like this huge, steel behemoth that also looks adept for snowy climates with its snowplough front and its dark colour scheme contrasts nicely against the white snowy environments it travels through. If there as anything they had to get right in this movie, it was the appearance of the Polar Express and they truly nailed it. Even after all these years, it still looks impressive.
And speaking of impressive, the action scenes are the most impressive parts of the movie by far. Robert Zemeckis's direction leads to some great looking action by taking advantage of the fact it's animated and pulling off camera angles and filming techniques that wouldn't have been possible in live-action. The scene where the Polar Express goes out of control especially makes you feel like you're on a roller coaster ride thanks to a first-person view of the tracks as it speeds down them. And then you get the scene on the frozen lake with the train sliding across the ice back to the tracks. It feels intense and exciting to watch due to how it's filmed and shot with numerous close ups of the train's wheels, cuts to the drivers in action and the Conductor as he gives orders to them. That scene would've been impossible to do in live-action so animation was THE way to bring this scene to life.
The animation may look outdated and a little awkward in places. But when it's good, it's REALLY good and this is still a very nice looking Christmas movie, even by the standards of 2004. If you can get over the uncanny valley humans, you're in for a great looking movie that's a treat for the eyes, especially during the action scenes...
The Polar Express is my favourite Christmas movie of all time and I hope I explained well enough on why that is. The story is engaging and creative, the characters are memorable and have a lot of charm to them, the animation is really pretty to look at even if it's a little dated in places, it's pretty exciting to watch and it overall fills me with a lot of festive joy every time I watch it. I'm glad this film has gained more popularity over time but I still feel like it's a little underappreciated. I say check this movie out for yourself and see what you think. You may find it surprisingly enjoyable just as I do. This is one train ride that nobody will forget anytime soon...
And that's it for this review. I hope you enjoyed it and I would love to hear your thoughts down below. Do you like The Polar Express? Do you not like it? Do tell. For now, I'll just wish you all a Merry Christmas and maybe your day be merry and bright. Next week, we close off this year with a recap on what we've been through in 2022. See you then everyone!
MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM THEMEDIAMANBLOG!!!