THE POLAR EXPRESS: There’s No Greater Gift than Friendship

The Polar Express (2004) – Directed by Robert Zemeckis – Starring Tom Hanks, Josh Hutcherson, Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Eddie Deezen, Charles Fleischer, Steven Tyler, and Michael Jeter.

If I had kids, THE POLAR EXPRESS would be a part of our yearly Christmas movie marathon.

I just dig everything about the film: the characters, the story, the colors, the message, the motion captur-

Well, okay, the motion-capture animation still looks kinda freaky, and points out one of the flaws with using this technology – it only looks worse as the years go on. You can pop Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into your Blu-ray, DVD, or VCR and even though it’s now 75 years old, it still looks completely gorgeous. Quality hand-drawn animation from the distant past doesn’t suffer much in comparison to modern hand-drawn animation. There’s a difference, to be sure, but that largely comes from the other techniques used in making a movie and not from the animation itself.

Motion capture is so dependent on technology, though, that aspects like the rendering of hair and faces have become much improved since 2004, giving earlier films that employ this technology a bit of a choppy look.

That’s not to say that motion capture is bad tech or that POLAR EXPRESS is only worth watching if you can get past all of the human’s melted faces. On the whole, the movie still looks really good, but the humans are the worst looking parts of what’s otherwise a gorgeous film. The train, the wilderness, the North Pole … all of them are beautifully rendered. The movement of the humans and elves, too, is pretty good, but those weird faces creep me out a bit. The result is that it’s hard for me to buy into POLAR EXPRESS as something real. Even the opening voice over narration from our protagonist as an adult (Tom Hanks) gives EXPRESS the feeling of a story within a story; that is, what we’re seeing is less the actual event than the representation of an event based on memory.

There’s nothing overly complex about the film’s narrative. A young boy (Tom Hanks/Josh Hutcherson/Daryl Sabara) who’s starting to doubt in Christmas gets to take a ride on a magical train to the North Pole, where he meets Santa and has his belief in Christmas eternally affirmed. What makes the film work, however, is how likable our main character is and how earnestly he views his actions throughout the movie. He does some less-than-perfect things, but he always admits his mistakes, even in the face of a very angry Conductor. I like this kid. He’s struggling with the idea of having to grow up, of having to accept that the world is a different place than he previously understood it to be. Losing faith in Santa isn’t just about Santa to our unnamed protagonist – it’s about all of adolescence.

The lesson he learns in EXPRESS isn’t so much that Santa Claus (also Tom Hanks) is real as that you don’t have to let go of your belief in childlike things as you age. EXPRESS doesn’t suggest that you can Peter Pan your way through life, but rather that simple ideas and concepts are worthy of being taken into adulthood. When our protagonist and the female protagonist (Nona Gaye/Tinashe/Meagan Moore) help Billy (Peter Scolari/Jimmy Bennet/Matthew Hall) come out of his shell, it speaks to how powerful friendship and goodwill can be to a person who has experienced little of either. It’s a simple idea but it’s also a good one, and a Christmas movie is a fine time to make that point.

There’s a story here about the train ride and the experience in the North Pole, but the plot points are less important than seeing good kids do good things and be rewarded for it. THE POLAR EXPRESS never quite ascends to the level of a classic, but I’m always pleasantly reminded about how much I like the film when I watch it. The movie’s motion capture will remain eternally creepy but the story remains eternally heartwarming.


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My latest book, STUFFED ANIMALS FOR HIRE: THE CHRISTMAS OPERATION is now available for purchase in PAPERBACK and KINDLE formats.

SAFH is a kid’s espionage novella, but it’s also a tribute to the television shows I watched as a kid: The A-Team, Magnum PI, Knight Rider, Hardcastle and McCormack, Riptide, Dukes of Hazzard and generally any show where Post and Carpenter did the music. Recommended age? If you let your kid watch superhero cartoons or Knight Rider reruns, SAFH should be age appropriate.

Here’s the back cover description:

Jurgen the Gorilla. Throne the Lion. Bronze the Golden Eagle. Ray the Brown Bear. Bottle the Dolphin. Dev the Lynxwoman. 3 the Triceratops. Ptera the Pterodactyl. These eight stuffed animals make up the Return Squadron. For seven months they have worked together to return disconnected stuffed animals home. But now … on their final mission, the Return Squadron seek to steal the legendary Map of Everything. Before Christmas morning arrives, three of the Squadron will turn traitor, four will be stranded, and one will never see another Christmas.