The Polar Express (2004) 

“Shades of Christmas Past” 


For many parents in recent years the prospect of a successful arrival, delivery, and escape of the North Pole Santa has probably been fraught with problems of pulling off the year-end mystery, especially as corpulent, white-haired men in red suits have proliferated as the season’s merchandising has been vastly extended in time.  Against all the frantic gift buying, the exhaustion of planning and shopping, and elaborate electrification of yards and houses, the nostalgic moments of the simple Santa myth and the joy of friendly get-togethers and charitable gestures have often been stifled by modern secular Christmas routines.  What’s left for kids after the craving and the packages are open?  What’s the welcome solace of year’s end for parents reflecting on le temps perdu?  An antidote for all the merry-making madness of repetitious, shop-till-you-drop Xmas rituals is a ticket to the North Pole on The Polar Express, Robert Zemeckis’s new seasonal film that has transported millions of people, grown-ups and children, back to an enjoyment of an experience with old-style Christmas meaning.


        The imaginative trips children to the place where Santa makes the toys are a big part of Christmas fantasy; the expectation of receiving gifts from “way up there” and fulfillment in opening them are important in maintaining the belief.  Yet, in later life when that particular belief is maintained for children’s joy, I wonder how much gifts themselves figure mnemonically to revitalize the spirit of Christmas.  Some experience, perhaps an annual happening, may be better remembered or the association with family and friends in unusually up-beat moods.  In this respect The Polar Express film goes a little further towards the significance of gifts than the 1985 storybook of the same name.  The movie plot, stretched out and padded with details, could hardly overlook the toy and gift business.  Even so, Chris Van Allsburg, the author of the book, must feel very happy with the translation of his illustrated work and story into film, for the major motifs and the theme remain wholly intact.


        Writers and artists of popular Christmas books could only imagine in their wildest dreams that a version of their stories and pictures would be published in another format that would carry the magic and mystery of the art to new heights and with promise of perennial returns.  For instance, Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, in part the literary creation of the kind of Christmastime we’ve come to know and reflect on nostalgically through the 20th century, has more or less succeeded in 50 film versions since 1908, many of them repeated annually, some through television and on other video media.  Though, so many versions of Dickens’ story have been produced--in dramatic, comedic, musical, and animated forms--it seemed film-makers would never be satisfied until the definitive representation had been produced in the most appropriate entertainment medium.  Regarding Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express, no one will likely try to improve on this elaborate interpretation.  However, I’m willing to



bet we will in the generation to come see the re-creation of many other favorite children’s works in an animation style similar to that of The Polar Express.  

[For those wishing the full filmographic descriptions, with authoritative nomenclature, complete with personal reminiscences of the dangers of agnosticism at Christmastime, I recommend you consult Glenn Buttkus’ commentary/review on The Polar Express at this Tacoma Film Club site.]


Van Allsburg’s storybook, sparse in text but so lavishly enriched by painted illustrations that the work has resonated for years in the imaginations of those who pored over the pictures and read it or had it read to them, now comes into its second life as a full-length animated film. The animation, quite enchanting in itself, at times bears strong resemblance to imagery of the book’s illustrations, especially the home’s ambiance, the steam train, outdoors landscapes, the North Pole cityscape, and the wolves sequence.  However, the soft, ethereal painterly style of the book is replaced with more explicit delineation as is customary in computer-designed images; a sharp edge is given to the animated imagery--most realistic in shapes and movement of human beings and animals.  Enhanced by novel cinematic technologies (human actions captured by affixed sensors and interpreted into computerized motion figures by CG artists) the animation has pseudo-3D effects even in regular theaters.  Moviegoers--and not just the children--in the theater in which I viewed the film were rearing back and clutching arm-rests on this amazing roller-coaster epic.  The 3D effects must be spectacular in the IMAX version, which format the film designers had in mind throughout the production of the film. Since this movie will undoubtedly return for anniversary showings, it is my hope that next year I can treat myself and others in my family to an IMAX viewing.


        Why does the animation go so far towards verisimilitude of individual human behavior and then stop at the mannequin stage?  If I were to criticize the animated images, I would find fault with the spacing of the eyes, most evident in The Girl’s face--eyes too far apart to have the binocular gaze appear focused and thinking.  To rationalize, one might say the imagery is dreamed after all, and perhaps dreamed-up people do not really ‘look’ or ‘see’; they do stare like that, no matter what the rest of the face expresses. The lashes also gave a doll-like appearance to the set of the eyes, but this was most apparent in close-ups. The familiarity of the plastic portrait, in the thoughtless glazed eyes of the commercial models’ faces in digitally-doctored photography, is definitely something to avoid in animation.  How to break up the mannequin surface and show the inner depth of vision and the natural elasticity of skin are challenges the CG artists must deal with if the style continues to verge on realism.  A major barrier to break through is to show a different style of face for individual characters and to represent expressive mood changes and a variety of appearances true to the nature of the same characters.  In Polar Express there’s still a homogeneous graphic style for nearly all the human characters, just as there is for the pack of wolves, the herd of caribou, and, most of all, for the multitude of elves. Though eyes and faces spoiled my full acceptance for a while, I got over it quickly and swallowed the illusion whole.  


        Robert Zemeckis also co-wrote the screenplay with William Broyles Jr.  Their Polar Express has taken liberties to re-elaborate and create extensive narrative sequences with much added characterization.  A short, inexpensive book has become a long movie with a huge budget.  Why this need to stretch and exaggerate?  Maybe it’s the style and tempo of our times.  We start rushing towards the jubilation of Christmas from Thanksgiving on;  the length of the journey, the pace of the spree, the build-up of expectations have grown to ecstatic emotional degrees.  Mature adults are of course responsible for all this exaggeration.  The very idea of the Christmas myth needing confirmation is almost an absurdity.  Just look at the beautiful coloration that people effect with lights on houses and on themselves personally in clothing, not to mention jubilant shopping frenzies.  All this excessive folderol may be driven by need to recreate the lost splendor of Christmases past, to participate, however tangentially, in the old fantasy.  Christmas rituals aim to get back to where we once belonged, to childhood.  The book’s success may have been its charm to tame the excesses and to return the mind to simple thoughts.  The movie expression, in spite of its hyperness, is very nostalgic and may help revive the dormant child within the most cynical Scrooge sick of plastic Xmas tree pretensions and mountainous piles of presents.


        Set in the Fifties, The Polar Express arouses nostalgia without much effort through the steam-train ride; the very rhythms of riding on rails were musically symbolic of journeying back in time--choo-choooooo! cha-cha-tatatata, cha-ta-ta-ta-ta, cha-ta-ta-tat-a, cha-tat-a-ta-ta, at-a-ta-tat .... and on and on.  Back to the striped-pajama, kid’s-dressing-gown Fifties is a retreat to a time before popular TV, before frivolous telephoning, before plastic, magnetic credit cards, before round-the-clock businesses to shop at, before ... shoot!--before STUFF got in the way of people and activities.  Besides paying attention to the officious conductor (Tom Hanks in one of five or six parts), who’s a bit of a nuisance as prophet and policeman, and then watching cross-eyed the whip-slam, Music Man can-can hot-chocolate fandango, a dance sequence performed by rubbery balletic waiters, singing and somersaulting across the seats, the moviegoer on The Polar Express is treated to a winter thrill ride from shabby Ruralville USA to the Fordian factory town at the very time when it becomes the totalitarian Mao Xmas-colored Shangri-La of the Mystic North.  This ride is a perfect movie getaway holiday, so long as one gets on the train.  


        Back a few decades before Van Allsburg’s Polar Express, another story-teller of modern, fictional fairy-tales set in a Middle Earth realm, an era without a mention of modern gadgets or telegraph wires, J.R.R. Tolkein was busy creating a fantastic North Pole world in words and pictures, keeping Father Christmas alive for his small bairns as long as he could string them along on skeins of whimsy.  In one of his hand-drawn and painted cards to Christopher and Priscilla, “F.C.” sent the following story of what goes on in his idiosyncratic Santaland:


        One night something woke up Father Christmas [from his bed up in a North Pole cabin where outside the Northern Lights flash and the deep snow makes it White Christmas all the time].  There was a squeaking and a spluttering and a nasty smell.  There were Goblins in his room!

        Downstairs in the store-cellars there was a great battle!  Polar

Bear was squeezing, squashing, trampling, boxing, and kicking Goblins sky-high.  He was splendid.

        It took a long time to chase them all away.


(From J.R.R. Tolkein, “Goblins” in Letters from Father Christmas, edited by Baillie Tolkein.  (London: HarperCollins, 1995), unpaginated.  Originally The Father Christmas Letters, published by Allen and Unwin, 1976.)


In this quick sketch, no time is spent getting to Santa’s house.  Already there’s a stinky crisis at hand, which Polar Bear solves like a successful North Pole King Kong, stomping under one ponderous leg-paw the dark Goblin imps and punt-kicking others into outer-space with the other paw.  In his front paws he is squeezing other tiny figures.  What jolly Christmas fun!  Probably Tim Burton would get a screaming delight from this macabre Christmas fantasy. Tolkein’s drawings and handwritten letters in Letters from Father Christmas, facsimiles in colored card facsimile envelopes, take the reader back to a magical, eerie place, where a Christmas mystery was dreamed up and re-enacted in the mind’s eye.


        Van Allsburg’s picture-book world is softer and cozier.  Zemeckis’s epic journey, however, has its own eeriness with dangerous possibilities. It has carnival and fun-fair scare-rides, precarious feats of jumping the gap between rickety carriages, walk-straddling the snow-topped roof of a carriage--no cake-walk-- as the train speeds through a bitter, blinding blizzard, soon perhaps through a narrow tunnel just ahead. There’s the horror of losing important documents.  A golden ticket for the train, that the no-nonsense conductor had requested to be shown, is blown out of The Boy’s reach.  It floats and streams on an unpredictable aerial flight over the windy, nocturnal landscape.  This sequence is a miniature visual epic all by itself.   On the carriage top there’s a bizarre meeting with a hobo ghost as weird and gruff as Tom Waits acting the hot sketch (another Hanksian disguise). The hobo is a creepy personality, though not malevolent--a sort of Jacob Marley apparition or a spirit of Depression-era Christmas past.  He, being definitely drawn in a Waits’ caricature, could have carried a bitter-sweet song with much meaning, perhaps as a balance to the sweet, sentimental song the children sing on the caboose.


         The Boy, protagonist of the narrative, is the dreamer of the fantasy train journey, one last trip within the kids’ crazy, labyrinthine Christmas Belief system, dazzled by the shimmering shiny stuff and the red fat man disguises before the tinkle of midnight jingle bells echoes gradually away beyond expectation.  On Christmas morning, to mark the contrast, The Boy’s mother comments from her mature distance when she shakes the bell that Santa left the Boy. No sound rang. She frowned as though it should have rung.  “Oh... that’s too bad!” she said, disappointed by its silence.  There’s sadness in the fact of sense-evidence when the symbolic jingle bell of believing has ceased to ring: “What a pity!”  The Lonely Boy with his surprise Christmas box seems to be experiencing a fresh fantasy that may seduce his belief into a more lasting value.  His circumstances gave hints of future disappointment, but for one year his imaginative participation had fulfillment.   Although there’s truth to believing that something exists that’s beyond the evidence of the naked senses--the elegance of mathematical solutions, the chaos of quantum physics, the patterns of gene strings and microbial wars in physiological universes--the moral of the belief, “Just believe and it’ll be true,” is a theme that eventually cracks under rational scrutiny.  Having faith in friends and trusting what a friend says, which is exemplified throughout the film, are the kinds of belief that need perpetuating.


        Yet, there’s abounding evidence in our grim times that people crave  beliefs.  Is it a type of nostalgia for a past age of strong beliefs?  What is important to believe nowadays?  The rite of passage the children on the Polar Express are passing through will eventually reach its concluding phase; they will pass beyond this innocence to more mature understanding.  How long should a juvenile continue to live the Christmas fairy-tale?  Next year, perhaps, the skepticism of The Boy, The Girl, and The Know-it-all will see through the mesmerizing rituals that perpetuate the myth of Santa’s gifting.  Nevertheless, the improbable feel-good fantasies of childhood are elements of our being that ought not be forgotten.  Intuitive belief in believing, whatever it is, may be what keeps magic working throughout a person’s life.  For The Boy the magic is symbolized in the jingle of the bell.  What continues to ring true about the festival, pagan or holy as one understands it, what continues to resonate on the inner strings of our psychic lyres, will differ for every person.  


Train to the past: personal epiphanies 


For Glenn Buttkus, who records [in this TFC link] a powerful drama of playing the Know-it-all, the trauma of being shamed for trying to spoil the Santa mystery for his siblings by wising them up was enough to engrave the experience in his psyche.  If one takes away magic from someone else’s experience, belief from someone’s heart, with what is the spoiler prepared to replace them?  Most of the time, innocence will give way to experience for each child in his/her own good time.  

        Personally, my trip back to Christmas is “Across the Miles” to a pre-fab, semi-detached council house in the Midlands of Northamptonshire, England.  Nothing particularly English resonates as the key symbol, nothing of the gifts--the erector set, the books, the games, etc.--hung on a neural strand for long (except for perhaps the Broons, Oor Wullie and the Rupert comic book annuals).  For me, it’s mostly a culinary event that evokes the nostalgia of Xmas.  Back in the days of coal-burning fires, in the Forties and Fifties when the British smog could grow thick enough to kill the weak of lung, it was my chore on Christmas Eve to keep the front-room fire stoked with coal.  The kitchen reeked sickly sweet of a fat cockerel’s innards, the only time fowl graced the table in those post-war years.  This rare bird, still fully fledged, my grandmother gutted in the porcelain sink, her arm pink half-way up to the elbow. The feathers had their own fresh, dampish smell as my mother plucked them, filling up the coal scuttle for me to carry off and by the handfuls to throw into the blazing grate in the other room.  Burning feathers give off their own distinctive bad smell; thus I was close in those child-times to Tolkein’s darker world of Goblin imps, squishy things, and stinky goings-on.  After I had flung the feathers far to the back of the hot coals so the smoke and smell would be drawn up the flue, a most amazing sound and light show exploded before my gaze.  The closest I’ve been to the Northern Lights was the iridescent pink-purple-blue-turquoise spectral flames that shot into hallucinatory brilliance from the hairs and marrow of the crackling, snapping quills and then faded till I threw another batch of down and feathers onto the fiery coals.  Uhmm! That smell!  Unforgettable!  The colors of that incendiary rainbow--Magical!.  The next day we ate the roasted stuffed cockerel for Christmas dinner.  I think today of the delightful firelights and have no special memory of savoring poultry meat as a rare delicacy.


        My aunt, who is older than I by just a few years and whom I could have called sister as much as aunt, remembers my mischievous ways more in the vein of The Nightmare Before Christmas.  My special Christmas Eve prank was to chase that squeamish teenage girl through the rooms of the house, menacing her with the cockerel’s claw, making her scream frantically as I trailed close on her heels, opening and retracting the claws by pushing and pulling on the tendon exposed at the knuckle-joint where the bird’s leg was severed.  What jolly, mad-cap fun!  Not a matter of belief in the Christmas symbols or the charade of gifts from the North Pole saint, the magic that clings is mostly about a butchered chicken, a grate of blazing feathers, and a set of claws.


        A steam train belting down the tracks, throwing off gouts of smoke from the funnel, also figures largely in my catalogue of nostalgic symbols from my English years.  I remember pressing my nose to the carriage window watching the telegraph lines hynotically swoop and hop from pole to pole to the accompaniment of the clackety-clack.  Playing on that memorable experience of long-gone locomotion, The Polar Express couldn’t fail to impress this bloke’s mind and heart.  


I gave this movie a rating of 5. 


David R. Gilmour