The Polar Express (2004)

Christmas is, if nothing else in my books, the season of traditions. Every year at the preappointed time we start pulling out the same songs, the same books, the same movies, and I love it. Tradition is the thing that makes family. Every one of you reading this can tell me at least one tradition your family has, whether it be centered around Christmas or another event. One of my favorite family traditions are the movies we watch every year, and the order we watch them in.

The movies that we watch are the same ones now as they were when I was small, and that is, in part, what makes them so awesome. As part of a special Christmas present from me to you, I will reveal every Christmas movie we watch between now and Christmas Eve, so make sure to check back every day!

Now, since you can both read the above title, you know the first movie I’m going to talk about is The Polar Express, that 2004 Tom Hanks vehicle of an adaption of a beautiful book.

I have mixed feelings about this movie. While the book ranks as one of my all-time favorites to read, the movie leaves me ambivalent. Part of the reason for that is the animation. I love computer animation, but sometimes I just can’t stand it. One of my favorite movies, Hoodwinked, has some of the worst animation I have ever seen. The Polar Express strikes me as the same. Not because the animation is bad, no, not at all. It’s because I find the characters expressions… apathetic. Sure they move and smile and look pretty realistic, but no one in the movie gives any real expressions, and that makes me feel disconnected from the story. I wish they had instead gone with a more traditional form of animation, or just picked different character forms.

If you can get past the zombie-people, the movie is beautiful. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered, and the train is a thing of beauty. And that scene with the ice train on the ice? Or that up-shot of bell through the ice? Be still my beating heart! They do ice incredibly well, along with snow. Which is good, seeing as this is, in fact, a Christmas movie set in winter. The way the environment moves around the characters is enough to almost suck me in, so long as we don’t go to a close-up too often.

I would also like to add a caveat to my character-hatred: the way the characters are written is fine. There’s nothing too stiff or stilted about them; in fact the Hobo ranks as one of my favorite characters from a children’s movie. The train engineers are hilarious and I wish they had more screen time. The main trio and annoying kid are all stereotypes, sure, but that’s what kids movies do to their main characters, so I’ll let it slide. At least they all get some character growth and go home a little different from when the train picked them up. So maybe just squint your eyes when the camera shows a person then go back to admiring the gorgeous scenery.

I also love the music. There are a few exceptions (“Hot Chocolate” springs to mind; Tom Hanks, I love you but you can’t sing), but when they get the music right, they nail it. Alan Silvestri provides a brilliant background soundtrack, and the moving “When Christmas Comes to Town” is one of my favorite Christmas songs.

It’s easy to see why, on one hand, the movie did mediocre at the box office; it can be really hard to embrace a movie where the people look like manikins, and it’s a Christmas movie so how many times do you really need to see it in theatres? By the same token, I also understand how it has since gained a cult following. If you watch it enough, you learn to look around the bad character capture/design and just appreciate the beautiful source material. Or you could read the book; same thing.

There are a lot of good points to this movie, and the plot sticks relatively close to the book (now if we could just cut the part with her ticket; why was that even included??). The Polar Express takes you on a wild ride from Michigan to the North Pole and back again, and teaches you, like the book, to believe.

(Man I wish I could make that word sparkle for you all.)

The Polar Express

By Chris Van Allsburg

Everyone has their favorite Christmas books. You know which ones I mean – the ones you haul out year after year and read to your children, or your siblings. From the time I could tolerably trip my way through our version of A Night Before Christmas I was reading it to my sister, thus sparking a new tradition: Christmas Eve Fight Night. (No, I kid – I knew Santa was watching and was always very, very good the night before).

One of our favorites, and perennial classic to children everywhere, is The Polar Express. No, not the movie (I’ll get to it later), but the book. I love the book. The illustrations are beautiful, incredibly rendered in gentle colours. They feel soft, in a way; looking at them makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, which is exactly how I want to feel when I’m reading a Christmas book.

The story is the one we all wish we could take part in if this story were real. An unnamed young man, going to sleep on Christmas Eve, awakens to hear the call of a train whistle outside his house. Running downstairs, he is greeted by the conductor and told that “this is the Polar Express”. Initially reluctant, the boy climbs on, and is ushered in to a lively, magical train.

The Polar Express makes its way north, eventually coming to a stop at the North Pole, where Santa will give out the first gift of Christmas. He chooses the boy, who requests to have a bell from the reindeer’s harness. Santa grants this wish and gives him the bell, but on the subsequent trip home, the boy realizes there was a rip in his pocket at that he has lost the bell. Dismayed at the loss, he finds a package under his tree the next morning with the bell and a note from Santa.

At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.

I’m going to say it again: I love this book. The illustrations are to die for, beautifully rendered and perfectly conveying the feeling of magic and Christmas. The story is simple, provoking children to reaffirm their belief in Santa Claus and Christmas. After all, if you believe, you too might end up on the Polar Express and receive a gift from Santa.

Suggested Ages: 3+

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