Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Michael's Christmas Movie Guide: The Polar Express (2004)


A real Christmas classic. 

A young boy starts to have his doubts as to whether or not there is a Santa Claus. Since this is his crucial night, The Polar Express a magical train stops at his house giving him and other children a chance to see the North Pole on Christmas Eve. 

I simply love this movie. To me it captures the feeling of being a child at Christmas. Part of the reason is that this movie is filled with a pure sense of awe and wonder. This is especially true of the beautiful and lush settings that are perfectly visually realized on the screen. It is also true with how this film takes place in the 1950's but never calls attention to it. If you pay attention, you can tell the time period by the magazines or by the kid wearing Roy Rogers slippers (as a Roy Rogers fan, I love that detail). However instead of focusing on things that are obviously from the 50's this movie instead focuses on having a nostalgic feel that simply feels like it is from the past. Because of this, whether your childhood was 20 years ago or 70 years ago, this movie transports you to whichever period you grew up in and have nostalgia for. However, the main reason that this film makes you experience it as a child again is because of the main character. Him having no real name and have a personality that we can all relate to make us see things from his eyes. This is enhanced by the fact that the film rarely moves away from the character. Because of this by the end of the film, we have the same awe and wonder by the magic of Christmas that a child would have. 

Even beyond this there is a lot to enjoy about this movie. Despite being based off such a short children's book this feature length film never feels too long. In fact, the 1 hour and 40m minute runtime flies by without a moment seeming wasted. The soundtrack is also simply wonderful. Alan Anthony Silvestri's (who has composed musical scores for many of director Robert Zemeckis' other films as well as this one) musical score is simply a joy to listen to. However, the songs are just as wonderful. The original song, When Christmas Comes to Town (written by Glen Ballard & Alan Silvestri), is simply beautiful and captures all the comforts of Christmas. Another original song, Rockin' on Top of the World (also written by Glen Ballard & Alan Silvestri) is a very fun song enhanced by an energetic performance by Aerosmith lead singer, Steven Tyler. Uses of classic Christmas songs being performed by Bing Crosby, The Andrew Sisters, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra add much to the nostalgic feel.

This film came to be when Tom Hanks fell in love with the 1985 children's book of the same name. He knew he wanted to make a movie based off this property and partnered with Chris Van Allsburg (who wrote the book) to make the film. He then got his friend Robert Zemeckis (who had directed Hanks in Forest Gump (1994) and Cast Away (2000)) to direct. Zemeckis would also co-write the film with William Boyles Jr. (who co-wrote Apollo 13 (1995), which also starred Hanks). Warner Brothers and Castle Rock Entertainment agreed to be production partners. They raised a budget of $165 million. Both Zemeckis and Hanks took an interest in doing the film with motion capture technology providing a more realistic look.

This motion capture animation is often the most criticized part of the film. It is true that the characters can look a little lifeless at times (especially with the eyes). Whenever I watch this film, I notice this at first, but as the film continues I stop noticing this at all. Because of this I have never found this as distracting as some others tend to. Though this may be a major flaw to some, it is only a minor one to me. 

Though the critics were harsh on this film, often calling the realistic animation "creepy," it was a hit film and many today (including myself) watch it every Christmas season. The reason for this is simple. It is just a very charming and well-made Christmas movie.

Resources Used

The Animated Movie Guide Edited by Jerry Beck


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