Chris Van Allsburg is a literary genius. If I were to give a TED talk explaining who this author is, I might be successful in convincing the masses of this statement. You know you are doing something right when three of your novels became bestsellers and get the silver screen treatment. I read Jumanji and its spinoff Zathura. I enjoyed those books immensely. It was equally mind-blowing seeing the books as movies. Robin Williams brought so much to his role in the original Jumanji. It was the first time seeing Williams take on a dramatic role with ease.
Zathura follows a young Kristen Stewart, Josh Hutcherson, and Dax Shepard survive the game in space. I later found out a man who would spark the Marvel Cinematic Universe by the name of Jon Favreau directed the underrated 2005 flick. Then came Robert Zemeckis’s tale on Allsburg’s 1985 Polar Express novel. I was 13 years old. I remember the teaser trailer being full of wonder, suspense, and excitement. I knew this film would carry me away on a whirlwind adventure.
The Polar Express follows a young unnamed boy who sees a mysterious train bound for the North Pole. The train stops outside his window and the boy is invited aboard by its conductor. The boy joins several other children as they embark on a journey to visit Santa Claus, who’s preparing for Christmas. I remember realizing that the majority of the main characters do not have names and instead are called Hero Boy, Hero Girl, Billy the lonely boy, and Know it All. I think this was done to express the type of people these characters are on the inside. Many kids exemplify those ideals and I think it allows these kids to relate to the audience more.
The Polar Express is quite the train ride. The conductor has a loud, exuberant, and commanding nature but he makes his passengers comfortable in his leadership. However, he seems to resemble an up-and-coming actor by the name of Tom Hanks. The train includes a whimsical musical number featuring hot chocolate and being on a train. There is a fast and furious sequence when the train ends up on the ice. I was so thrilled by all of it, I was convinced I was riding a roller coaster myself.
The train finally makes it to the North Pole and it’s a festive occasion as Christmas nears. But there is a slight detour as one of the train cars gets uncoupled and we see the inner workings of the North Pole like Santa’s Workshop. The elves are quite the sarcastic bunch and somehow and an elf that looks and sounds like Steven Tyler makes an appearance. The Hero Boy is chosen to receive the first gift of Christmas. I must add that the boy is struggling with his belief in Santa throughout the film. A sleigh bell falls off the legendary sleigh and the boy finds it and begins to rekindle his faith in Old Saint Nick. He loses the bell but Santa always comes through and gives it back while offering some sage advice. The thing about this bell is that it only rings for those who truly believe.
The final lines narrated by Hanks makes my heart race with joy as the enchanting score by Alan Silvestri plays:
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 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 think this film is a fascinating allegory for faith and for believing in something greater than yourself. As a kid who went to church, I thought about the impact and the power of belief. It’s quite an emotional journey as well.
I have to give a shout-out to the crew for the amount of work that went into this film. I must commend Tom Hanks for his roles as Hero Boy (adult voice), Hero Boy’s father, Conductor, Hobo, Scrooge puppet, and Santa Claus. I convinced myself one time Donald Sutherland was Santa Claus. The voice seemed shockingly similar. Josh Hutcherson (Hunger Games) as Hero Boy (motion-capture). Daryl Sabara (Spy Kids) as Hero Boy (child’s voice). The late Peter Scolari (Tom Hanks’ best friend in Bosom Buddies) as Billy the Lonely Boy (motion-capture). Then there is the late legendary actor Michael Jeter (Air Bud, Jurassic Park 3) as Smokey and Steamer.
This film uses a process called motion capture. Motion capture is the process of recording the movement of objects or people. In filmmaking and videogame development, it refers to recording actions of human actors and using that information to animate digital character models in 2-D or 3-D computer animation. There is an amazing Ted Talk where Doug Roble goes into detail on this advancement in film. Zemeckis felt live action would have been way too expensive. He wanted to go in a different direction and bring a new form of artistic storytelling to the table. I’d say it was a risk worth taking since motion capture is instrumental in so many movies and videogames like Halo, Star Wars, Avatar, etc.
Polar Express received decent reviews and box office. There were some moments where the animation of the characters felt a little jarring and a tad overwhelming but overall proved effective. However, the film sparked real-life train trips and a ride at SeaWorld. I can’t forget the amazing soundtrack featuring an iconic song by national treasure Josh Groban. This film continues to bring me so much joy and wonder. Zemeckis once again delivers a film that is fun to watch but sparks something in your imagination that makes you jump for joy and shine higher and brighter for greatness.
“Seeing Is Believing, But, Sometimes, The Most Real Things In The World Are The Things We Can’t See.”