Polar Express (2004)

At first glance, The Polar Express doesn’t have a lot of unique qualities that will hook you: it’s best seen on IMAX screens (which is not available everywhere); many characters are played by Tom Hanks, and is directed by Robert Zemeckis  (didn’t we get enough of them in Castaway?) Plus, it was animated using motion capture – an expensive, sophisticated process that makes you wonder why all the bother. Well, if you check all your negative expectations at the door, and just come to see a holiday cartoon about Santa and what really happens on Christmas Eve – you’ll be pleasantly surprised. A lot of effort was poured into this movie – it’s obviously a pet project for Zemeckis and Hanks – and this effort is right there on the screen – in the detail, in the performances, in the emotion.

Maybe if I saw this movie any other day, I would have been less impressed. But the plan was to see a holiday film on Christmas Eve. So I found a movie theatre with IMAX screen, picked up the 3D glasses on the way in, and settled comfortably in the oversized chair… 90 minutes later I picked up my jaw from the floor, and finally ended a very long gasp. Wow, what an experience! It actually made me giddy, just like Final Fantasy did a couple of years ago. Giddy in awe.

Where do I begin? Animated characters that looked incredibly realistic, hair that moved with the wind, laws of physics that were consistent throughout the film, reflections in glass, refractions through water… There’s so much detail to absorb, so much technical artistry, you almost forget about the plot, and about the adventure that’s unfolding right in front of you.

The story is simple, and yet touching – a kid (who is beginning to doubt Santa’s existence) goes on a journey the night before Christmas – meets other kids, gets in trouble, faces dangers, reaffirms his belief in Santa and in North Pole, goes back home just in time to see an empty milk glass and cookie crumbs on his table. I guess Santa does exist, doesn’t he? The movie keeps this simple question as its main theme – the belief that kids have – and slowly lose over time – and the need to reaffirm it. Sounds banal, but it allows for a kind, open-hearted approach to the Christmas traditions. Anything coy or tongue-in-cheek would appear fake, insincere, so the filmmakers take a big risk and eliminate all doubts and cynicism right away. And it pays off. The kids (and parents) have to be a little naive and open-jawed to make this movie and the adventure work.

And speaking of the kids – there’s a few of them – archetypes, but all are well-rounded. It’s nice to know that after having spent millions of dollars on special effects the creative team actually took the time to come up with more than a handful of characters, to give them normal lines, motivations, doubts. I stopped caring about Hanks’ voice re-appearing in different characters, because each of them had a different story to tell – Scrooge, the Hobo/Ghost, Santa, Conductor. These characters were animated differently, had their own plot-lines and knew when to leave the screen. And the kids – the main hero, the outcast, the leader and the brainiac – all had their unique charm. I couldn’t get enough of their interactions, even though in the back of my head I realized these are just animated characters, the actors voicing them may not even be in the same room. It’s really good to see animated performances that are more convincing than many “acts” put forward by today’s celebs – I guess for some people it is easier to draw a believable emotion than to express it.

Of course there’s obligatory FX sequences – any IMAX movie has a few of them. In no particular order we are given a train roller-coaster, the tree lighting, preparation of the sleigh, the skidding on icy lake. But it’s the very first appearance of the locomotive next to the kid’s house that made me gasp. Right off the bat I was given realistic steam, smoke, shadows, the crisp shuffling of snow, snowflakes falling everywhere. Yes, don’t forget, it was a 3D experience, so the movie took place all around me. The payoff was almost immediate – as I drooled over the attention to detail, I saw the kid’s wonder at the train, and I knew at this moment  – I’m going along for the ride, and will most likely keep this face expression throughout the movie. The kids’ eyes lit up together with mine – this was such a beautiful trip.

When their journey wrapped up, and the next morning everyone was opening presents the children (and me) believed. We knew that there is Santa, and he’s surrounded by many-many elves, who help him with presents, who know very well the naughty and nice kids, and who work very hard to make that one night very special, and magical for all who believe. I went in a skeptic, just like the main hero, and walked out a believer. Christmas bells do sound differently for those who believe in this holiday. And to top this wonderful feeling, the movie doesn’t play exclusive – the parents who don’t believe are not portrayed negatively – they simply grow out of this age, and don’t experience the magic the same way. It’s not a moral story, it was just a journey after all.

Polar Express is a wonderful, kind movie that works so well technically, and also delivers emotionally. Don’t let the cynics keep you away from this special experience. See it, take kids, and adults alike – this one is for everyone, and it’s for any time of the year. It just works a little better during winter, when the streets are covered in crisp white snow.

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