The Polar Express

Super old movie review written back in 2004. I cringed while I was reading it again. Posting it here to remind myself to keep moving forward. I can’t get stuck writing crap like this.

Originally posted here.

Based on the Caldecott Awardee book of the same title, The Polar Express attempts to take kids on the ride of their lives.

The Book
The children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg is a simple story of how a young boy holds on to his belief that Santa Claus exists despite his friend’s contradictions. As he lay quietly in bed on Christmas Eve, hoping to hear the sound of ringing bells from Santa’s sleigh, he hears instead the sound of a train stopping outside his house. When he investigates, he finds that it is the Polar Express, the train that takes kids to the North Pole to see dear old Santa.
Simple and straightforward, Van Allsburg’s story tells of the magic of Christmas and the wonders of believing in Santa. As you read the story, you find yourself joining the young boy on the journey of a lifetime. The beautiful illustrations – done by Van Allsburg, too – invoke that thrilling sense of magic and adventure coupled with a feeling of oh-so-comforting warmth. One cannot help but be drawn into that world Van Allsburg creates in both the story and illustrations.

The Movie
Do you know how there should be a “willing suspension of disbelief” when you watch a movie to be able to enjoy it? In the case of The Polar Express, no matter how hard you consciously try to suspend your disbelief and put yourself in the movie’s “merry” world, you can’t help but notice all its pitfalls. It tries so hard to be as realistic as it possibly can that it fails miserably. The boy’s face is frozen into one sinister-slash-wondering-slash-naive look that almost scared me senseless; Santa was too serious and lifeless to be the embodiment of Christmas spirit; and the conductor looks too much like a creepy Tom Hanks that all you can see is Tom Hanks, not the conductor who plays an important part in the movie.
Kids are lucky they don’t pay attention to such things. All they reallylike is the action and the colors and the spectacle of an animated movie about one of their favorite holidays – Christmas. If one were to take that aspect of the movie alone, TPE would be a tremendous success. The kids who were in the theater with me (all, I believe, were of preschool age) hooted and cheered as the three young lead characters went on their amazing journey. Twinkling lights, song and dance numbers, eye-popping and heart-stopping adventure scenes that put kids at the edge of their seats – TPE has them all. Watching the movie with kids around eventually allowed me to watch it from their perspective, to see the movie the way a kid would see it. The wonder of Christmas, the innocent but strong belief in such a traditional and religious figure, the yearning for an adventure, the formation of a beautiful friendship – all these take new meaning when seen from a kid’s eyes.

Side by Side

The great thing about the animated movies we have today such asFinding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Shark Tale is that both adults and children appreciate the same things that the movie offers, although they may do so on different levels. In the case of TPE, it is only natural for this movie to target the children since the movie is based on a children’s book. Therefore, it’s the children who may appreciate this movie more than the adults.

The book is very simple – perfect for young children who are only beginning to appreciate reading. There are no complex plot twists, scheming family members, backstabbing friends, impossible employers, or romantic entanglements that plague so many of our popular literature today. And because the book is so simple, the creators of the movie had to fill in the blanks just to keep the story going. The problem with this is that the blanks were haphazardly filled with out-of-place twists that make the movie seem so contrived. The result is that every single action or word the characters do or say leaves one thinking, “Was that really necessary?” or “That’s not right!”
Another, and perhaps the biggest, change that the creators did is with the attitude of the young boy. From a young boy who believes with his whole heart that Santa Claus exists, he becomes a young boy who is disillusioned about the whole image of Santa Claus. This change is in one way good for the movie. It engages both children and adults because everybody, at one point in their lives, had or will come to doubt the existence of Santa. For children, they may now be starting to come across evidences that Santa does not exist, therefore shaking their belief in him. For adults, they are reminded of that time when they stopped believing in Santa. This motion from doubt to belief as represented in the being of the lead character holds the attention of the viewer, albeit rather weakly since the other elements in the movie are a bit distracting.

The movie’s animation is, at best, nice. The color, tone, and texture of the original book’s illustrations are captured in the movie. It’s almost as if one is looking at the illustrations in the book itself. However, that is as far as we can go with our comparison. The quiet and magical aspect that makes the book a classic is lost in the movie’s numerous action sequences and misplaced twists. And do I have to mention again how creepy the characters look?

The Polar Express aims to be an uplifting holiday movie. It tries to send a message of faith and trust and holiday cheer. What comes across, instead, is trying-hard, creepy-looking movie that only kids will probably like. So unless you’re a child, don’t expect this movie to make you go “HO-HO-HO!” I recommend that you just grab the book, a mug of delicious hot chocolate, snuggle under the covers and read.


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