By John H. Foote
I loved every second of this magical film.
No humbug here folks, this was pure enchantment.
Though The Polar Express has its detractors, humbugs among us, I thought director Robert Zemeckis, his computer artists, his sound and sound engineers, editors, cinematographers, musicians and songwriters, designers, and his wonderful actors captured the pure magic of Christmas as seen through the eyes of a child.
And is Christmas not about children?
Remember finding out the truth about Santa? Where you not sad? Did some of the magic go from Christmas? It did for me but also came the realization of what my parents had done to create that magic. My dad was a blue-collar General Motors worker. We were not wealthy, but he had great benefits, especially the drug plan. Mom worked as an accountant in a farm equipment store, so we did alright, but if GM went on strike there were some lean times. Yet in hindsight, as lean as things might have been, we wanted for nothing. And at Christmas, under that tree was a mountain of gifts, and even more the morning of, delivered by “Santa” through the night. I started to figure it out when I noticed Santa’s signature was exactly like my mother’s. One night after my siblings had gone to bed, I was doing homework at the kitchen table as she ironed. I asked her to tell me the truth and she did. In doing so she made me promise not to tell the younger siblings, and I never did. “Be part of their magic” she requested of me.
When my oldest daughter asked me, I asked her if she really wanted to know before telling her. I asked her to be a part of her sister’s magic, and she was. Ariana figured it out on her own, finally asking me, and I could tell in their faces something very special had been removed.
Belief in Santa Claus meant you also believed in flying reindeer and the North Pole. What is astonishing about The Polar Express is that the North Pole, the toy factory, those magical reindeer, and the glorious North Pole seemed familiar because so many times in our youth we had conjured it in our minds. Drawn from the imaginations of generations of children, it was perfect. As the train pulls into the city square of the North Pole, we first see elves, tiny little creatures walking, and acrobatics their way to the city centre beside the train. Santa is magnificent, larger than life, ancient, yet knowing, as though he was grandfather to all children.
The film is animated using the same technology that allowed Andy Serkis to become Gollum in The magnificent The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-02-03) and the title character in King Kong (2005), performance/motion capture which is created with the actors wearing sensors that are run through the computer and rendered into their avatar.
The film begins late one night when a little boy, never named us trying to go to sleep on Christmas Eve. The year is never given but I suspect the late fifties seems a good guess, bringing even greater familiarity to me, born in 1959. Try as he might he cannot sleep because he has reached the cusp of his belief in Santa. Magazines, encyclopedias, overheard comments from his parents have placed doubt in his mind. Just when he thinks he does not believe the extraordinary Polar Express Train rumbles down the street and stops in front of his house. There are no tracks, the train just sits there steaming as the boy runs to it. The conductor (Tom Hanks) approaches him and asks, “Well, you comin’.” Asked where and the impatient man exclaims they are going to the North Pole. Initially, the boy says no, but seeing the train pulling away, he leaps on and finds a seat among the other children in the car. He meets a lovely African American girl, full of soul, full of Christmas spirit, along with a greedy I want it all for me, know it all kid voiced by Eddie Deezen. Their final pick up is a shy, terribly shy little boy on the wrong side of town, who chooses to sit apart from the rest.
The journey they learn is to see the North Pole and Santa with their own eyes so they will believe. As the train rumbles through the landscape often like a car on a rollercoaster, the kids are treated to a dancing and singing procession of waiters delivering hot cocoa, wolves run alongside the train, and a huge group of caribou put them behind. Obsessed with being on time, though minutes seem to have stopped, the fussy conductor does all he can to get the express to its destination on time. As the train winds around the tracks that take it into the very busy city square, we see the buildings, the elves, walking and somersaulting towards the square until finally, we are there. More misadventures take place involving the elves, the massive workshop, the enormous bag filled with toys until finally our Hero, is face to face with Santa. Towering over him, dressed in red and white, eyes gentle and twinkling, his voices a soft rumble as he chooses our boy to receive the first gift of Christmas. Each of the children receives a valuable gift from Santa, though our hero goes away with perhaps the greatest, he believes.
Based on a relatively short children’s story, the film opens up the narrative without ever impacting the very essence of the book. The writers found the soul of the book and brought it to the narrative, gently, with glowing perfection.
Watching Santa climb aboard his sleigh as his reindeer already are trying to take flight was a vision of beauty. Seeing them soar into the air, legs pumping as though running, the sleigh increasing in speed until in a flash they are gone, moving at supersonic speed. The elves watch in wonder before erupting in a year-end celebration, dancing in the streets, another Christmas for the books.
I first saw this film at a press screening but five days later entered the cavernous Scotiabank Cinemas at John and Richmond in Toronto with my wife and daughters, ages 12 and 4 to see the film again, this time in 3D. To this day I am not sure who had more fun, my wife and kids or me? Watching my baby Ariana reaching out for snowflakes that appeared to be right in front of her or ducking when the sleigh seemed to speed over her head was a joy. Aurora dug the film too, but like me, I enjoyed watching her sister as much as the movie.
The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Score, Best Original Song, Best Sound Editing, and Best Animated Feature, it came away empty-handed. The score is breathtaking but perhaps overused in the film, and besting The Incredibles (2004) as Best Animated Feature? No, no chance.
As good as The Polar Express might be, the genius of The Incredibles cannot be denied.
Tom Hanks voiced and performed several roles including the boy’s father, the conductor, a ghostly hobo riding the rails and Santa himself. His voice was transformed in the mixing room, yet he shines through each character, Santa best of all.
Robert Zemeckis remains one of cinema’s most exciting filmmakers daring to go where others dare not. He directed the thrilling Romancing the Stone (1984), Back to the Future (1985) and its sequels, the sensational Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Forrest Gump (1994) for which he won the Academy Award as Best Director, Contact (1997) arguably the most intelligent, plausible film about contact with alien life, Cast Away (2000), another breathtaking Hanks performance, A Christmas Carol (2009) with a mo-cap Jim Carrey in multiple roles, Flight (2012) with Denzel Washington, and will helm the upcoming The Witches (2020) and Disney’s live-action remake of Pinocchio. Mentored by Steven Spielberg he remains one of Hollywood’s best and busiest directors.
If he existed, if the North Pole was his home and the home of his elves, this is how it would be. The magic of Santa, of the North Pole, was brought to the screen with pristine perfection in this marvelous holiday film. An absolute knockout.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”