The Polar Express Review
TO THOSE WHO TRULY BELIEVE
It’s the holiday season and many are celebrating the spirit of Christmas. Trees are up and decorated, bundles of present are underneath them, mantles are lined with hanging stockings, and sparkling outdoor lights are adorned around in the front yard (and around your neighborhood. Yes, it’s Christmas eve and tomorrow will bring the joy and celebration of Christmas to many out there. Some for the very first time and some who have seem this yuletide holiday come and go for many seasons. Regardless, it’s a time of gathering of families, friends, and love ones and enjoying the true spirit of Christmas. At this time of year, many Christmas / holiday movies are being played (on TV or on your personal home media). Whether it’s a classic, new hit, or filled childhood memories / nostalgia, everyone has their favorite ones to watch. With Christmas, almost upon us, I would to share one of my personal favorites and give it one of my “movie reviews” treatment. So, without further ado. Here is my review of the 2004 animated film The Polar Express.
On Christmas Eve, while many boys and girls sleep soundly for the arrival of Santa Clause, one doubtful young boy (Daryl Sabara) is about to embark on a wondrous adventure when the hears the rumbling roar and whistle of a steam engine outside his window. Venturing outside, the boy finds that indeed a steam locomotive train stands in front of his house, with the train’s conductor (Tom Hanks) exclaims that the train is the Polar Express, a magical train that journey that takes kids to the North Pole every Christmas Eve. Boarding the train, the young boy befriends other pajama-clad children, including a heroic girl (Nona Gaye), a know-it-all boy (Eddie Deezen), and a lonely boy named Billy (Jimmy Bennett). As the night goes on, the Polar Express continues its journey as the boy discover more about the spirit of Christmas, soon arriving at the North Pole as the children ready to meet Santa Clause, who bestows upon the boy a great gift and learns about the power of believing.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
What can I say…. I’m a huge fan of Christmas. Always have and will always be. I love the putting of the tree, the decorations, good food, opening presents (yes, I’m like a big kid. I still like opening up presents…haha), and the coming together with family members. However, I’m not one of those people who will wear an ugly holiday sweater (I refuse to do that). Anyway, since I love movies, I do have a love for Christmas movies / animated shorts as well, especially some of the classic children ones. You know the ones that I’m talking about…. Rankin and Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the 1969 animated short Frosty the Snowman as well as the movie Elf, Home Alone, and various adaptions films / shorts of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (can’t pick which one). There are plenty of other ones out there that I like to watch, but those are some of my fan-favorites. But let me tell you about The Polar Express and my thoughts about this movie. And for the record, this is a retrospect review as I saw it in theaters when it was first released back in 2004.
Based off of the children’s picture book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg (the author of other famous children’s picture books Jumanji, and Zathura which both have been turned into films as well), The Polar Express is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who’s known for directing such films as Forest Gump, Castaway, and The Back to the Future trilogy. Zemeckis keeps the feature light and kid-friendly, keeping the child-like wonderment of Christmas front and center. The film visual effects were a bit advanced (for its time) in an animated feature, with plenty of beautiful CG rendered in a Christmas wonderland. Zemeckis also utilized motion capture to render the body movement performance for the film’s characters, a technique that was still a bit in its “infant” stage (only a handful of other movies used this technique). In addition (if you look close enough), there’s a couple of scenes in the movie that are exactly depicted from Allsburg’s book.
On a personal level, what makes The Polar Express important to me is (and perhaps many out there) is that of its message. Basically, the film talks about believing, the power it holds, and the (if you look deep enough) the defining moment of when the make-believe innocence of a child ambiguously starts to ends (i.e. when they stop believing Santa Clause and magic behind Christmas). Maybe because I somewhat a kid at heart, but there’s just something magical about watching The Polar Express, especially at those moments when its underlining message of “believing” takes center stage. Without spoiling it (in case you haven’t seeing it yet), I most definitely hear the bell. Additionally, ever since I was younger, I’ve always love trains (still do), especially big steam locomotive trains. Doesn’t matter if its toy size or real life full size, I love everything about trains. So (naturally) I love looking at the Polar Express train in both the book and was a bit excited to see it in Zemeckis’s animated feature. And yes, I loved how the steam engine looked like. So, despite what I say negative about the film, The Polar Express is still a treasured Christmas movie to me.
While I do praise (and cherish) this movie, The Polar Express still has some problems that it can’t overcome. Since the film is based on a children’s picture book (a sort of bedtime story), it’s pretty clear that Zemeckis, who also helped the pen script along with William Broyles Jr., had to stretch certain parts of the story to fill a standard animated feature film runtime. Some of the add stuff is good like the exploration of the North Pole (Santa’s Workshop) and the whole narrative thread of the Hero Boy’s (making a believer out of him), but there were several elements that didn’t work. An example of this is in the scene where the Polar Express (the train) travels down Glacier Gulch, which is basically a 3D gimmick to simulate a rollercoaster. Another negative criticism is (just a bit) the facial expressions on most of the faces of the characters. I know that this movie was created back in 2004 and visual effects technology wasn’t what it was today (even today’s movies there not quite 100% flawless). Still…it can be a bit jarring to see some of characters’ facial expression a bit “lifeless” at times, especially in their subtle movement of the eyes.
The voice talents used in The Polar Express is fairly okay as some voice hit their mark, while some kind of sort of don’t fit exactly well. It’s a relatively small cast, led by actor Tom Hanks, who does several of the voices in the movie, including the Conductor, the hobo, the Hero Boy’s father, and, of course, Santa Clause himself. Hanks’s voice can be heard in all of these characters, but each one is slightly different to tell each one apart. In addition, with Hanks being the big-ticket actor in the movie, his voice lends the weight to the film and brings a sense of gravitas to the feature (at certain times). The rest of the cast is a bit of a mixed bag, but the get the job done. Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, and Jimmy Bennett all good fairly good jobs as Hero Boy, Hero Girl (yeah, not the most clever character names), and Billy (the lonely boy). The only voice (to me) that doesn’t match quite well is in the know-it-all boy, who is voiced by Eddie Deezen. For whatever reason, Deezen’s voice doesn’t mesh well (I kept on hearing his voice for Mandark from Cartoon Network’s animated show Dexter’s Laboratory). As a side-note, Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler does voice two characters in the movie as the Elf Lieutenant and the Elf Singer (who looks like him).
Lastly, I can’t forget to mention the importance of this…. the film’s main theme song, which is “Believe” by rounded vocalist singer Josh Groban. What can I say…I love this song. It’s beautiful, heartwarming, and very in-tune with the film’s themes and of the holiday spirit. Plus, Groban’s strong vocal voice is (in truth) is really good and carries volumes in both the song’s low and high pitches. Even to this day, Groban’s “Believe” is still a highly memorable and recognizable holiday song, playing on most (if not all) radio stations during Christmas time, and still carries The Polar Express’s main message of believing. In addition, the music in The Polar Express is something worth noting. Composed by Alan Silvestri, the film’s score also has that magical feeling that seems to fit perfectly with the film’s overall story. In addition, Silvestri also heavily utilizes Groban’s “Believe” throughout the movie, echoing its melody in sweeping flourishes that helps add to the film’s Christmas fairytale narrative.
Prepare to take a journey aboard a magical train to the North Pole on Christmas Eve night in the movie The Polar Express. Director Robert Zemeckis’s 2004 animated feature adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg famous children’s holiday book is a beautiful reminder of the wonderment of Christmas and the power of believing in it the holiday spirit. While the film may stumble a bit in expanding Allsburg story and in its animation style rendering as well as a few scenes that were clearly used as 3D gimmicks, the movie is still a holiday classic worth treasuring and revisiting every Christmas (at least for me). Personally, I liked the movie. The movie still retains the book’s core narrative, the actual Polar Express train looks awesome, Groban’s “Believe” is great, and the last scene of the movie is extremely moving and powerful. Thus, I would personally say that, despite some flaws, The Polar Express is an instant classic that I would recommend to all, especially to those who believe in the spirt of Christmas. And as a personal note about myself (borrowing the last lines from both the book and the movie) … “Though I’ve grown old the bell still rings for me, as it does all who truly believe”.
4.1 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: November 10th, 2004
Reviewed On: December 24th, 2016
The Polar Express is rated G