THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004)
This beautifully made film touches on something primal, and spiritual, and innocent. It creates the illusionary world of a seven year-old child; a place of the purest imagination, like Shangri-La in LOST HORIZONS (1937) [not the schlock-fest within the 1973 Bert Bacharach musical], also a place of pure fantasy, like the chocolate factory world of WILLY WONKA (1971). It all started with a Caldemott Medal winning children’s book, THE POLAR EXPRESS, by Chris Van Allsbury; a brilliant illustrator with a fertile mind. He also wrote JUMANJI. Both books are short, 32 pages long, and filled with is incredible artwork. The film, JUMANJI (1995), taken from his book, was moderately funny, but it seemed adrift somewhere between the children and adults within the audience. It served only as a poor platform for the manic energy and talent of Robin Williams, and as an early film for Kirsten Dunst. However, the film that has been made from THE POLAR EXPRESS is not adrift or lost. It is an incredibly touching funny meaningful thrill ride both for children and the adults that accompany them; or, as in my case, which come to see it on their own recognizance. It is very difficult to fully flesh out about 18 pages of story into a 100-minute $165 million dollar state-of-the-art 3D Imax animated feature, but Robert Zemeckis succeeded wonderfully.
It is hard to define the intangible qualities most of us search for, and hope for in a Christmas Movie. Much of the time we are treated with saccharine shallowness, commercialism, and crude humor; from Jim Varney in ERNEST SAVES CHRISTMAS (1988), to Chevy Chase in CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989), to Tim Allen in CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS, brought out this week. Every Yuletide brings us competing dueling Christmas made-for-television films, from all three networks, and several of the cable ones. Most of them are loaded with silly milksop, treacle, and soapsuds sentiments. Every year we are force-fed yet another version of the Charles Dickens tale, A CHRISTMAS CAROL. This week on TV, it will be presented as a musical starring Kelsey Grammer as Scrooge: as if Albert Finney’s musical version in 1970 wasn’t consummate enough. There was a Western version with Jack Palance, several Black versions, some with female Scrooges, and there was a drama, EBENEZOR, starring Henry Winkler as the tough-luck broken-hearted hero. Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Madison Avenue begins to plummet us with Christmas commercials for Target, K-Mart, and several car companies. We find ourselves soon restless, resentful, overwhelmed, cranky, and nearly anesthetized by this seasonal bombast. But every once a decade, or so, we view a Christmas film that contains moments that are truly touching, that reduce our grizzled adult features back into the suppleness of pre-adolescence.
When we hear Gene Autry sing JINGLE BELLS, or Bob Hope sing SILVER BELLS, or Bing Crosby singing WHITE CHRISTMAS—we find ourselves waxing nostalgic, and for a heartbeat we are reconnected to a simpler, cleaner, and less sarcastic time. For instance when we watch Jimmy Stewart rush back into his home after his Yuletide heavenly lesson, and he embraces Donna Reed, and his many children climb up his lanky frame, and cling to his every fatherly appendage, or when that tiny bell ornament on their Christmas tree rings, and little Zu-Zu tells us that Clarence just got his wings in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), or when John Payne had three tons of letters addressed to Santa Claus at the North Pole delivered to the courtroom to prove Kriss Kringle’s humanity and validity, or when the young Natalie Wood discovered Kringle’s cane in the corner of their new dream house in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), or when young Peter Billingsly as Ralphie finally opens up his Red Ryder air rifle in A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983). It is something that is tricky to describe, as ineffable and holy as uttering the name “Jehovah” out loud. That feeling we experience is sometimes called,” the spirit of Christmas”, a real sense of actually loving our family, and craving the very intense pleasure of giving to others.
Amidst the overkill in the plethora of Christmas films, we recognize and genuinely cherish those “special” moments. THE POLAR EXPRESS is loaded with them; a clear reflection in a hubcap, a coach car full of broken and discarded toys being returned for recycling to the crew at the North Pole, the smile on an outcast lonely boy’s face when he is presented with a cup of chocolate, a caribou/reindeer kicking at the air as it begins to gather speed in its ascent while pulling Santa’s sled, a golden train ticket blown out of a child’s small hand, moving on the wind with a life of its own, and a complete full-sized snorting steam train parked in front of a child’s house on a snow-covered residential street, and more, many more.
When we found ourselves almost midway through Elementary School, at about 8 years old, we were growing up fast, and our child’s mind reeled with the immensity and mystery of maturation; the magic and horror of reality. Our favorite Fairy Tales had begun to ring false, the tooth fairy turned out to be our mother, and Santa Claus turned out to be a fat seasonally employed pretender at the Department Store. It was a turgid and dark time.
I remember when I was 8 years old one Christmas Eve long ago. It was 1952. My little sister was 6 years old, and my little brother was only two. They still tenaciously clinged to the Santa myth. I had had enough of that nonsense. I proclaimed in my sternest 8 year-old’s contralto tones,
“Don’t be stupid! Santa Claus doesn’t exist!”
I was proud to have figured this out, and I really didn’t want my siblings to suffer in their own ignorance. They both began to cry almost uncontrollably.
My stepfather decided to try and calm them down. He put on some red Long Johns, a pair of white woolen mittens with matching woolen cap. He put some of our presents in a potato sack, and he slipped outside. Being Christmas Eve, we kids were staying up past our normal bedtimes. We asked where Art, our stepfather, was. Mother told us that he was sick, and that he had gone to bed. Suddenly we heard a loud thump, and some banging on the side of the house.
“What’s that?” we all asked.
“ I really don’t know,” my mother lied.
One of the living room windows opened, and my stepfather crawled up over its sill, shouldering the great potato sack, wearing logger cork boots with red Christmas paper taped on their sides, wearing just his red long underwear buttoned up tight, with his white woolen cap pulled low over his twinkling eyes.
He ho-ho-hoed, and then asked my brother and sister if they had been good that year.
“Oh yes, yes!” they exclaimed in chorus.
He unloaded his potato sack of brightly wrapped presents under our tree, took a few sips out of the tall warm glass of milk that stood on a TV tray nearby, munched a sugar cookie, and crawled back out through our living room window. My siblings cheered, and then turned to me, with their little hands on their hips.
“No, what do you say?” my sister inquired.
I could not reply. I was weeping too hard. At that time my stepfather was a young man in his twenties. That evening, that stunt, was the most sensitive thing that he ever did. Then he spent the next 25 years eroding that memory. But right there, on that night, while struggling through the middle of third grade, I learned a valuable lesson. I never felt the urge to enlighten children again as to the validity of myths or fairy tales. I loved my stepfather for one whole night. I got over it though.
For most of my adult life I have found myself marooned somewhere between the Lands of Humbug and Being Touched. Much of the cheap sentimentality of the Christmas season attracts me, and the commercial crassness repels me. I cling to my loved ones, praying the older ones will not die midst the revelry, as my father-in-law did three Christmas’s ago. I meditate sometimes, and I try to exist, to breathe the thin atmosphere within the silence high above the din. But sometimes the artificiality weighs me down. I summed up my frustration not long ago.
H A P P Y B I R T H D A Y
The wind whispers it
To empty pueblos,
Across barren tundra,
From timberline to the turbulent sea.
The derelict mumbles it
To the pigeons in an alley
As he belges
And pukes his way
Through an alcoholic nightmare.
A peeling billboard heralds it
On the side of a crumbling building
Near the freeway.
A businessman drones it
To his robotic staff
On a taped message
To be listened to
Only on their coffee break.
A black man exclaims it
To his dozen children,
And their pet rodents,
And his faded wife,
His timid parents
And his white neighbor
That lives down the street.
A convict reflects upon it
While staring at his piece
Of the world
Through gray bars of steel,
And he finds enjoyment
Only in his mind.
Senior citizens remember it,
As a special yesterday;
As when Rockefeller was a boy;
When trees were tall;
When most men had muscles;
When teachers really knew
Not like this day
When old folks are herded together
In homes and hospitals
To celebrate and vegetate
A lunatic ponders on it,
Wondering why in hell
We all make such a fuss?
Is much like another?
Just the buzz of Narcos,
And the stillness
And after all,
Man still cannot
A young reservist soldier
Across the hot sands of Iraq,
Knee deep in white swirl,
Remembering a girl
And parents that are laboring
To finance his vacation
In the Middle East.
Carrying an automatic assault rifle
And a heavy shell belt,
With a helmet pulled down low
Over his eyes;
Mouth full of stinging dust,
Eyes that see too many people dying,
Ears that hear too many people crying;
Arms that are weary
From the butchering,
And cowboying –up;
Heart full of pain,
This angry boy
To his buddies nearby;
The one with the side of his head
Blown completely off,
Or the one in six pieces,
With no arms and legs
After embracing a mine.
Amidst all the death,
Blood and gore,
From out of the alkaline haze,
We can hear
The soldier wailing,
“It is Christ’s birthday,
Glenn Buttkus 2003
THE POLAR EXPRESS is the brainchild of two parents; director Robert Zemeckis, and star Tom Hanks. They had collaborated on two previous films, FOREST GUMP (1994), and CAST AWAY in 2001. Zemeckis, flush with wealth and fame from his BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy and franchise, had one other foray into animation; WHO KILLED ROGER RABBIT in 1988. Working carefully from Van Allburg’s slim little book, they adopted the look of his lovely illustrations, and took it to the next level. Hanks, familiar with animation, having worked on both TOY STORY films, accepted seven roles for this project. He played the Hero Boy as narrator, the Conductor, the Hobo, the Scrooge Puppet, and Santa Claus. He also was the primary executive producer.
The actors in this film were able to physically act out their parts in front of a blue screen. Zemeckis used a process called “performance capture”. The actors wore specialized suits that were covered with dozens of sensors that relayed details of their movements to a nearby bank of computers, and infrared cameras were keyed to the sensors. In a promo, showing Hanks in his performance suit, he looked a bit like one of the Ninja Turtles. Peter Jackson used this process brilliantly for the character of Gollum in his LOTR trilogy. The computers were able to capture a virtual three-dimensional image of each actor.
The idea of mixing live action and animation has been around for a long time. Disney did it a lot, especially for his television hour, and at MGM, they had Gene Kelly dancing with cartoon characters Tom and Jerry. Director Ralph Bakshi pioneered a form of it that he called “rotoscoping”. He would film live actors performing, and then he would draw and paint over the film frames. He did this in WIZARDS (1977), his own version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS (1978), and later mixing live actors and animation, working with Brad Pitt in COOL WORLD (1992). Robert Zemeckis did this in his ROGER RABBIT in 1988, and in that film he interposed live action and animation to hilarious effect. This year we were treated to SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, and although much of the art design and CG was very impressive, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow were stiff as stick figures awkwardly pantomiming in front of the proverbial blue screens. In POLAR EXPRESS, Zemeckis found a way to almost merge live action and animation, creating what constitutes a whole new art form; the “almost alive” character. It helps us to feel more like we are experiencing a dream state, where characters don’t feel quite real, but they don’t seem drawn either. I really responded positively to the effect. Obviously, for many critics, they found themselves taken aback, shocked, and somewhat assaulted by it.
One interesting note, in this film there is no villain, no specific antagonist. It is more esoteric, as if the only heinous act was just the threat of the loss of innocence. Children will instantly recognize the emotional predicament, and adults will glance back across the dark decades to that precious moment when innocence was mugged by puberty; kick starting our eventual metamorphosis toward maturation. Sooner or later, most of us had to face the curse of maturity. For me one giant plus about a terrific sentimental film, like this one, is that we creaking cronies can let loose our inner child, liberating it for over an hour, letting it frolic and travel on a magical journey while having a fabulous adventure.
Zemeckis worked on the screenplay, adapting the children’s story. He was assisted by William Broyls, Jr., who has written ten screenplays; films like APOLLO 13 (1995), CAST AWAY (2001), and Tim Burton’s remake of THE PLANET OF THE APES in 2000. The touch of cronyism is acknowledged here. It appears that Tom Hanks would have known who he was, and perhaps assisted in securing him for the project. Alan Silvestri, who also is a charter member of the Zemeckis posse, composed the music. He scored all three BACK TO THE FUTURE’s, and ROGER RABBIT, and FOREST GUMP. He has stayed quite busy outside of that limited pervue however. He has completed scores for 105 films, like ROMANCING THE STONE (1984), STUART LITTLE (2002), and VAN HELSING in 2004.
For super star Tom Hanks, this film project had to be a complete labor of love, a gift to his own children and to his inner child. In his numerous capacities, voicing the six characters and executive producing, he would have had to spend copious amounts of precious Hanksian time on it; much more than he ever could have been monetarily compensated for. One got the feeling that POLAR EXPRESS was not a “money film” for him.
The world of this film was timeless, unassigned and free-floating; although the wardrobe and the train did feel very 40’s or 50’s. Much of that world was as fresh and new as that found in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), and as in that classic, this film had four companions on a wondrous adventure. I was also reminded of the eerie world within Hayao Miyazakis’ SPIRITED AWAY (2001), or likewise the confines of Osama Tezaki’s remake of METROPOLIS (2001). POLAR EXPRESS emerges as both feeling real and surreal. One’s imagination can be cranked up to supersonic mode because parameters are nearly non-existent.
The story in POLAR EXPRESS was unique and tantalizing. An unnamed boy, in an unspecified year and locale, was becoming agnostic about the myth of Santa Claus. He still wanted to “believe”, but persistent puberty and the other great slayers of innocence were beckoning. He refused to respond to a department store Santa. He refused to participate when his little sister put out the milk and cookies for Santa. Unable to sleep, he lie in his bed hoping against hope that he might hear the clamor against his roof and the magical tolling of sleigh bells.
Instead, exactly at 11:55pm, his whole room began to shudder and his toys fell off shelves. He heard a thunderous clatter outside in the street, and his tiny room filled up with brilliant light. He quickly put on his slippers and bathrobe, tearing one of the pockets in his haste, and rushed downstairs. He opened the front door, and there in the street, in the snow, was a great black steaming hissing train. As the boy approached it, the conductor seemed to know him, and be expecting him.
Conductor: Well, ya comin’?
Conductor: To the North Pole, of course! This is the Polar Express!
The thing about trains—it doesn’t matter where they’re going, see?
What matters is deciding to get on.
At first frightened, then curious, the boy boarded the dark chugging dragon that crouched there on his street. The lights from inside the cars were bright; the illumination almost golden against the snow falling from the night sky. The Hero Boy was voiced by Daryl Sabara, from SPY KIDS (2001), but when in thought, or in narration, the adult voice was that of Tom Hanks. Hanks also played the Conductor, and it was the only character in his repertoire that actually looked like him.
The train stopped several times, and in each case a chosen child, a doubting child would appear from their homes dressed only in their night clothes, and they too would have to decide whether or not to board. No one else stirred in the neighborhood. It was if the adults could not see and could not hear that great Northern Zephyr. It was uncanny and unsettling, like an alien abduction. As if time was folded, and just stood still, as the children or perhaps just their ethereal or spiritual forms would board the train and ride hell-bent for adventure and mythological closure. That train reminded me a bit of the three-story omnibus in HARRY POTTER 3 (2004), a magical vehicle that could transport the special few without alerting the pesky Muggles.
In the early 1950’s, I remember being fascinated with trains; especially locomotives, the great Iron Horses. Just to be seven years old and to stand next to one of those great steaming giant locomotives was a test of childish mettle, and a solid thrill a child does not soon forget. On my child’s list of possible vocational choices to pursue when I “grew up”, I’m sure that railroader was near the top. That was before I began to understand danger, hard work, and unions.
The Hero Boy, inside the club car, found three more companions; Hero Girl, Know-it-all, and the Lonely Boy. Nona Gay, who is a lovely 30 year-old singer/actress, voiced the girl. Adults did most of the children’s voices. Nona appeared in THE MATRIX 2 & 3. Her Hero Girl was plucky and brave, more so than the young boys, of course. Eddie Deezen voiced Know-it-All. As an actor, he has worked steadily since 1978, having completed 64 films; many of them were children’s films, comedies, and animated features. His version of the “Nerd” voice is almost as recognizable at Paul Rueben’s PEE WEE HERMAN. Peter Scolari voiced the lonely Boy. He had played Tom Hank’s cross-dressing roommate in the television series, BOSOM BUDDIES. Rounding out the cast we found Michael Jeter, in the last role before his demise. Although some claim that his actual “last role” was as Percy, the stablehand, in OPEN RANGE (2003). We also discovered Steven Tyler, lead singer for AEROSMTIH, voicing the Elf Lieutenant, and the Elf Singer.
On the train, the only thing that the children knew was they were headed to the North Pole to meet with Santa Claus. Nothing else was explained to them. Events just happened, one after another. Some critics felt that these scenes were filler and silly padding, just useless fluff to expand that slim children’s book narrative. But I do not think Robert Zemeckis was “lost in translation”. No, he was right on the beam. For me, this film proceeded like a waking dream, and like in all dreams there are tangential events and situations that one’s spectral representative finds themselves in. No, it is not logical; rather it is a kind of cortical meandering. If one accepts this premise, that the film is “dreamlike”, then the many high points of the movie do not seem extraneous, or as one critic put it,” full of pointless detours! ”. Then what we perceive is something cohesive and perfectly coordinated; a kind of elusive dreamlike through line. So when the Boy chases after the Conductor holding the Girl’s left-behind ticket, and he encounters the marvelous Hobo camped out on the top of the speeding train, and all the magical illogical events occur, including the delicious scene with the floating ticket being blown several times from out of the Boy’s hand—we do not need to question it. We can just enjoy it. The ticket’s flight is reminiscent of another Zemeckis gimmick, that floating feather in FOREST GUMP.
Zemeckis has given us a series of thrill rides, like the light speed dash down the face of Glacier Gulch, strenuous climbs over towering peaks, dashes over miles long high train trestles, the dangerous slippery crossing of the thin ice on the frozen lake [I felt like applauding as the train chugged off the lake and climbed up the slope on the other side.], and the spectacular arrival at the North Pole, the apex of the piece. The North Pole turns out not to be an underground city, nor a Nordic copy of a sleepy snow-covered alpine village. I remember thinking as the train slowly approached the twinkling lights of the Christmas City that, yes, the North Pole would have to look just like this; like a kind of mid-European turn-of-the-century industrial city, something Slavic; more menace than gingerbread, immense and sprawling; a great City of Factories with thousands upon thousands of inhabitants. Christmas, after all, has always been “Big Business”.
As the Express rolled in, they found the outskirts of the city to be empty. The mystery train sliced through the polar silence, and made its way geometrically through the huge buildings. But soon the children spy the minions, thousands of elves, making their noisy way toward the city square. It was massive like Moscow’s Red Square. The train slowly snaked its way through the milling diminutive throngs, and came to a stop near the center. This was the place where the great Santa Claus would launch his flight for Christmas that year. The surging crowd of elves was a bit scary, kind of like the cloned Army of Mordor form TLOTR. There was a flavor of almost mob-mentality as the elves pushed, shouted, and shoved.
Our four small heroes got separated from the others and had another tangential adventure, traveling down red-herring streets and many dead ends, until they found themselves in the largest of the toy factories. Riding a conveyer belt, they were catapulted down a package speed slide, and they ended up plopped into Santa’s huge 100’ tall toy bag. Soon the bag is closed up, and picked up by a helicopter, soon to be delivered to the City Square, to be placed in Santa’s huge sleigh. There were great moments as the elves lit a giant Christmas tree, the helicopter clipped the edge of the great star on top of the tree, and the heavy star plummeted to earth, nearly injuring some elves, and the reindeer bucked and tossed their heads friskily as they were tethered in festive harness.
There were several musical interludes. I fully enjoyed the hot chocolate number done for the children on the train, and the rock opera done at the North Pole was toe tapping and impressive. The grand entrance of Santa Claus was like a cross between the pomp of the Pope’s arrival and the fanfare of an appearance by Elvis. It was great to hear Steven Tyler belting out,” Rockin’ On Top of the World”. Hero Boy was finally able to transcend his disbelief, and breach his agnostic tendencies, and he was able to “hear the sleigh bells”. Their tingling tones seemed to signify raw faith in all that was Christmas. The Boy was picked from all those thousands to receive,” the first gift of Christmas.” Santa presented him with one of the sleigh’s silver harness bells; which he promptly lost through that hole in his robe pocket. How sad, we all thought appropriately, but Santa traveling at super warp speeds beat them all home. Hero Boy found his bell waiting for him near the Christmas tree, and he could hear the sound of it clearly. For a time he could clutch this innocence to his heart. When the bell eventually would fall silent, he would have matured beyond its spell.
The critics were violently split on this film. I saw ratings ranging from half a star to five stars. One critic cruelly wrote that the Conductor looked like,” Hanks doing Dan Aykroyd playing Mr. McFeeley on botox.” I would strongly disagree. The characters appeared human-like, but still remained somewhat animated on purpose. Zemeckis strived to make them true to the original Van Allsburg illustrations and still be lifelike. They were not as “human” as say the characters in FINAL FANTASY (2001), which often, as I viewed it, seemed like some kind of dubbed foreign film. I kept thinking why is Donald Sutherland’s distinct voice keep coming out of that short bald guy? In terms of POLAR EXPRESS, I was constantly reminded of the book as I viewed the film; both artistically and spiritually. Fans of one can comfortably enjoy the other.
Painfully for me, I found eight out of ten critics I read had trashed the film. It became a real love-hate scenario. Another vitriolic response read,
“ Children will run screaming from the theatre after seeing Tom Hanks looking like he’s been killed, embalmed, and resurrected by lightning.” Man, talk about your left-handed compliment! Another wrote,” The nameless children are unsettling. Their faces are strange, stuck in the shadow zone between flesh and figment. Their eyes seem eerie and dead, like the zombie children in THE VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960).”
If I were Robert Zemeckis, I would be smiling, enjoying the “pearls before swine” scenario. There just seems to be a multitude of small minds and mean spirits all endeavoring to knock the genius interloper down a few pegs. How dare he create an “animation” that appears so “lifelike”!
What’s next? Perhaps a bunch of movies that will be forever dubbed as “Clone Cinema”, full of nearly-alive characters, who at some point will have synthesized vocal chords with computers scanning and reading the dialogue; thus dispensing with “real” actors completely. The blind already have this OCR technology, and they are able to scan print, and a computerized voice “reads” it.
For me though, there was one almost valid point raised within the critical ire; the lifeless eyes. A film actor’s eyes are the key to his performance. They are the mirrors to his soul. An actor, doing his job properly, is thinking an “inner monologue” while in the scene, even when not actually speaking dialogue; while they are listening to other characters and observing the action. As they stare into the camera lens, into the “eye” of the camera, they need to be communicating with their own eyes within the realm of that pretense, that dramatic or comedic situation; not thinking about how cute some actress is, or what they’re going to have for dinner.
This spark, this “life”, so far has not been duplicated digitally through animation. But since actual actors are “playing” the parts, at some point, perhaps technology will be able to capture and fake the fire within. And if so, or when it were possible, I would ask why not? Acting as an Art form is still based on pretense and slight of hand. Reality is overrated. It is all around us, in the streets, and in the theatres. Why complain if our entertainment is not “real” enough?
Roger Ebert, bless his Pulitzer-prize winning heart, loved this film, even though he found himself in the critical minority. He wrote,” This picture is near perfect. The characters have more of a human quality than Pixar ever achieved with their CG artistry. Zemeckis aimed for a Christmas classic, and he certainly achieved it. He used technology impeccably to imagine faraway places and long lost sentiments. Go see it several times. This is a movie that doesn’t wear out.” There lurking on the other end of the spectrum were the critics who felt that none of the animation in this film stacked up against the Pixar achievements. One wrote,” Skip this turkey and go see THE INCREDIBLES. It made cartoon characters seem more human, not like in this film where humans are made to seem more like cartoons.” Ebert wrote directly from my heart. I embraced his every word, and applauded every turn of his phrases. He stood proudly, almost entirely alone, extolling his praises.
Yet another disgruntled critic wrote,” The schmaltz content gets higher and higher, as if administered through a drip-feed, until by the end, we are literally drowning in sucrose.” God, how jaded many of us have become. How shut down, desensitized, angry and up tight many of us seem. I welcomed the honest sweetness of both the children’s book and this incredible film. I believe it will become a cinematic perennial, and it will flower for the enjoyment of many generations to come. My mother watched THE WIZARD OF OZ over forty times. It was her favorite fantasy film. I now have one of my own.
I gave this movie a rating of 5 stars
Glenn Buttkus 2004