Robert Zemeckis’s computer-animated The Polar Express is based on the picture book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, writer-illustrator of such beguiling picture books as Jumanji. Unlike the 1995 adaptation of Jumanji, which had almost nothing in common with the book beyond the premise, Zemeckis’s The Polar Express manages a remarkable degree of fidelity not only to the simple structure of its picture-book source material, but also to its look and spirit.
Following in the footsteps of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express achieves a striking approximation of photorealism in its human characters, something that no other all-computer-animated feature film but these two has yet attempted. The Polar Express actually goes beyond Final Fantasy in its use of motion capture, a technique used for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, in which real actors act out the characters’ movements, and countless tiny sensors on the actors’ bodies and faces record the movements and transfer them to digital synthespians. The result still isn’t quite lifelike, not yet, but the visuals in The Polar Express somehow look like illustrations come to life, as the characters in the video-game-inspired Final Fantasy looked like computer-game avatars.
Van Allsburg’s simple story of a nameless, doubting boy who rides a magical train to Santa’s home at the North Pole is fleshed out by introducing us to a few of his young fellow passengers, and also by making the train ride and the visit to the North Pole far more eventful. These additions are fairly consonant with the spirit of Van Allsburg’s work; almost any two minutes of The Polar Express could be a scene in a Van Allsburg story, even if they could never all be squeezed into a single book. Fans of the writer-artist may be pleased to find The Polar Express about as faithful an adaptation of the author’s work as could be imagined in a feature film. But is it enough? Does The Polar Express work as a film? Like all Van Allsburg’s books, The Polar Express is long on imagination and imagery, but short on plot and characterization. With a picture book, there’s always the option of paging through it in a matter of minutes or spending as much time as desired poring over the illustrations. With a feature film, the option of paging through is off the table, and without much in the way of plot or characterization we’re left with 90 minutes of imagery and imagination.
Can simple, nearly plotless imagery and imagination sustain a 90-minute film? Perhaps, if the images are inspired enough. The Caldecott-winning Jumanji, for example, proposed something truly startling and worth thinking about: What if you were playing a game that became real, and suddenly there was, say, a lion in your living room? What would you do? It’s a good question, isn’t it? How many children’s books ask a question like that? By contrast, The Polar Express takes us to a destination that is both familiar from countless earlier Christmas stories (many more interesting than this one), and also, significantly, not all that magical once we get there. Is this trip really necessary? As depicted here, Santa’s home is neither a magical fairyland nor a picturesque, snowbound toymaker village, but merely a quaint European-style city with winding cobblestone streets and — I am not making this up — canned Christmas muzak. It’s actually kind of creepy, especially when our hero and a couple of companions are wandering the dark, deserted streets, alone and lost, separated from the festivities, and the record begins to skip. Alas, even at the North Pole, where everyone celebrates Christmas, only "inoffensive" secular tunes are allowed. Bing Crosby can croon "Silver Bells," but not "O Holy Night" or even "Little Drummer Boy."
There are other miscalculations as well. By giving the Hero (voiced by Spy Kid Daryl Sabara) a trio of young supporting characters, the filmmakers undercut the Hero’s climactic moment with Santa Claus, since at least one of his companions is clearly in greater need of Santa’s personal attention than our hero. This is a poor, sad youth, called Lonely Boy in the credits but identified in dialogue as Billy, who looks like a young Haley Joel Osment but is voiced by Jimmy Bennett. He’s a timid creature from a poor home who sits alone in an empty car the whole ride and, once at the North Pole, actually declines to disembark, explaining sadly that "Christmas doesn’t work out for me." Surely this fragile soul, not our doubting Hero, ought to be the child privileged to receive the first present of Christmas from Santa’s own hand? But when the moment comes, creaky plot expectations kick into gear, and the Hero receives the privilege for no good reason except that he’s the Hero. Another deserving candidate would have been the Hero Girl, a spirited young black lass (Nona Gaye) with unwavering faith in Santa Claus who reaches out to the Lonely Boy, and is designated the "leader." Only the obnoxious, tow-headed Know-It-All, gratingly voiced by the obviously adult Eddie Deezen, is clearly less deserving than the Hero.
Perhaps all this might be mitigated if Santa himself were a revelation, a figure of magic and awe. But he isn’t. One of the film’s nearly half-dozen characters voiced by Tom Hanks — here with the pitch of his voice artificially dropped, making him sound sounding strangely like Donald Sutherland — Santa is stiff, boring, and not at all sounding like himself. "The meaning of Christmas is in your heart," Santa tells us. Whatever that means. The Polar Express is largely concerned with matters of "belief," particularly belief in Santa Claus. "I want to believe," our Hero confesses to a magical Tramp (Hanks), who adds knowingly, "But you don’t want to be taken in, suckered, bamboozled… Seeing is believing." Later, though, the Conductor (Hanks) says, "Sometimes the most real things in this world are the things we can’t see." More problematically, he also says, "The thing about trains is, it doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on board." (Rejoinder from a friend of a friend: "What if it’s going to Auschwitz?") An index of faith is the sound of the magical North Pole bells, which can be heard only by those who believe. Our Hero finds that the bells are silent for him and struggles to "believe," even though he has personally ridden a train to Santa’s North Pole and has seen elves, flying reindeer, an enormous sack of presents, and so on. How much more convincing does he need? What kind of "belief" is he supposed to work himself up to?
A scene in which our Hero tries to muster up faith, focusing like the Little Engine that Could ("I believe… I believe…"), plays like the mirror image of poor Linus in his pumpkin patch in "It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," trying pathetically to be as "sincere" as possible despite having no indication of the Great Pumpkin ever taking the slightest interest in him. Here Santa has actually sent a train for our Hero and brought him to the North Pole, yet — despite experiences that would have sufficed to make a believer out of David Hume or The Amazing Randi — he’s still dithering. That’s not what faith is about. Belief in Santa Claus, like belief in fairies in Peter Pan, might be seen as a metaphor for retaining a sense of childlike wonder. Christmas, however, is about more than that. I’m not opposed to Christmas-themed stories about Santa Claus, or even stories about believing in Santa. But the more central the themes of belief and the meaning of Christmas are to the story, the more problematic it becomes to focus on Santa and effectively deny any religious meaning.
The Polar Express is visually stunning, but the sentiment is strictly at the level of a Hallmark card, of the sort that can safely be given to a range of acquaintances without either offending or touching anyone. It probably won’t do youngsters any great harm, but morals like "It doesn’t matter where the train is going, the important thing is to get on board" and "The meaning of Christmas is in your heart" aren’t ones I care to reinforce for my children.
Light on plot and story logic but strong on narrative thrust and fantastic imagery, it’s the most effective of the three films… Alas, Zathura is also a family film of the contemporary family as well as for it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.