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25 Days of Christmas: The Polar Express (2004)

The Polar Express (film)I seem to be reliving Halloween all over again; except the movies here are snow-covered.  I always try to pick a few new movies to watch over the holidays.  Not only does this prevent the same old thing, but I discover new favorites.  Unfortunately, as I discovered during Halloween, there’s always a slump of stuff I don’t like.  Yesterday’s review of Annie was pretty angered.  I don’t think my review of The Polar Express is better.  To be fair, I did like The Polar Express a lot more than Annie.  It’s a better story that does follow a clear-cut narrative (aside from the few divergences into WeirdVille), but the animation is frightening, the film never knows when to settle down, and the only humbling moments come in the final minutes.  I think the best way to recommend The Polar Express is if you enjoyed director Robert Zemeckis‘ take on A Christmas Carol from a few years ago.  A lot of what bothered me about that film apparently was established here, so if you liked that film then you’ll enjoy this.

A young boy finds he’s lost his belief in Santa, and yearns to find the Christmas spirit.  On Christmas Eve, he boards the Polar Express; a train going to the North Pole where the children can meet Santa Claus.  Along the way he makes new friends, and establishes a belief in Santa.

I absolutely love the original 1985 book by Chris Van Allsburg, and I kick myself every Christmas that I don’t have a hardcover copy of the book from when I was a kid.  It’s easy to understand some of the changes the film version was forced to make considering the book’s length, and the fact that a large portion of it is simply the boy sitting on a train.  While I understand the need for action the film beats the viewer in the face with at least five action scenes that act like a Rube Goldberg device to pad the run time, and prevent kids and parents from falling asleep.  One can have action beats in a film, but in the span of about twenty minutes we see at least three lengthy action scenes that go on and on.  By the end of the film I barely knew anything about the characters, nor did I care about them.  They’re simply protagonists  not characters you come to root for or enjoy, because the film doesn’t stop to breathe and present character development.  It’s a similar problem that I noticed in A Christmas Carol a few years back.  In fact, it’s the only thing I remember from that movie if that means anything.  In a way, I just felt as if all these action scenes such as the train acting like a roller-coaster, or the coupling on the train coming undone, were simply meant to be cool demonstrations of future rides at Disneyland.

There’s a lot of questions that sprung up from this movie, again because there’s not much character involvement.  The first three minutes establishes the boy, his lack of belief in Santa, and him boarding the train.  From there you get at least eight action scenes, meet three other children as well as the conductor and some weird hobo guy whose purpose I never fully understood, and eventually arrive at the North Pole.  Once they actually get to the North Pole there’s at least three more action sequences, a brief meeting with Santa, and the end.  It’s a 90 minute movie that has about twenty minutes of story, and the rest is all action.  That’s a pretty unbalanced narrative.  As I said with Annie, there’s several things that could have been cut down including the weird musical number purely about hot chocolate.  What is it with these movies, and creating arbitrary songs about common objects?  There’s a song written about going to the movies in Annie, now we have a song written about hot cocoa?  Remind me when I write my screenplay to include a song about cleaning my guinea pig cage or something.

The animation will determine a big portion of your enjoyment because it’s pretty bad.  Long-time readers know I notice animation.  Hell, I’m covering all the Disney movies.  The Polar Express was the first film to utilize the new type of motion capture that Robert Zemeckis was championing.  Since this film came out it got a little better in A Christmas Carol, and then crashed and burned with Mars Needs Moms forcing Zemeckis to go back to live-action films (where I believe he belongs).  In all those movies it was always weird-looking at the way they were animated.  Here the faces of the characters look waxy, almost as if they’re rendered for early computer programs.  Remember the Ally McBeal baby?  The animation’s kind of like that.  When the characters move you see all the skin on their faces move trying to catch up.  I wouldn’t say what we see here is representative of the uncanny valley, it’s just badly rendered CGI.  Keep in mind it would get better in later films.  The two characters who are animated the worst are the little girl who befriends the boy, and Santa Claus.  I didn’t understand why the girl’s head and spine didn’t match up, and end up having her look like a hunchback, nor is the Santa animation at all realistic. The landscapes are nice when they’re not moving, but once the action ramps up and you see the train hurtling down the tracks everything becomes pixellated and cheap looking, again in a return to that early computer like imagery.

The script doesn’t help either.  I did enjoy the film using the final lines of Van Allsburg book, and I did enjoy the final ten minutes of the movie a lot because the film finally slowed down to focus on the heart of the story which is the boy himself.  I didn’t understand the part of the hobo that keeps popping up.  Was he supposed to represent the boy if he didn’t start believing?  The script never explains, and in fact the character disappears around the forty minute mark.  I also gathered via Wikipedia that the lonely boy who gets on the train can’t celebrate Christmas.  Thank goodness for the internet because the film never mentions that, and I was confused as to why the little girl kept explaining what Christmas was.  Was she explaining to the boy who didn’t know Christmas (I  guess if Wiki’s to be believed), or was she explaining it to the audience who apparently didn’t know this was a Christmas movie?

Other mind-boggling decision include Steven Tyler showing up as a singing elf, adults voicing children (the know it all kid was 30,000 times more irritating because it’s obviously an annoying grown man), and Tom Hanks playing at least 18 roles (I’m exaggerating).  Was the film trying to play off Peter Pan by having Hanks inhabit so many roles?  As the conductor he’s solid and unobtrusive, but when he plays the hobo with a bizarre New York accent, or Santa himself by dropping an octave (I thought he was trying to be Bane sans Scottish accent for a bit), it’s distracting.  I half expected to read he’d played a few reindeer or the Polar Express itself.  It’s not that out of the realm of possibility is it?

I’m coming off really harsh on this movie.  There were parts I enjoyed.  I enjoyed the opening.  I liked the parts where people actually talked, not sang, to each other, and I enjoyed the last ten minutes.  If you think that’s enough to entice you to rent it, then be my guess.  I recommend revisiting the original book if you want the true Polar Express experience.  If you want to watch it, it’s on all month on ABC Family.  Just think, I contemplated reviewing the remake of Miracle on 34th Street….maybe next year.

Grade: D

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The Polar Express (Widescreen Edition)

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

4 thoughts on “25 Days of Christmas: The Polar Express (2004) Leave a comment

  1. I definitely liked the movie better than you did. I hated A CHRISTMAS CAROL and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is what they were trying to do with POLAR EXPRESS!” I thought the character development was simple but deep, because of the lack of complicated dialogue. But the animation of the characters was so warped! Especially the little demon elves from hell! I liked Tom Hanks, because I like him in everything. I also really love the soundtrack. The hot chocolate song is my favorite!!! How can you not love that song?! My score would probably just be a C+, though. Good review.

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