Christmas Eve. While idealistic, Santa-believing tots dream sweetly of sugar plums or listen intently for the patter of reindeer hooves, one preteen is kept awake by the drip, drip, drip of his own growing cynicism. We know this because he skeptically looks up “North Pole” in the encyclopedia and maintains a drawer full of clippings exposing Santa as a fraud. No annual mall photo with St. Nick. No seasonal letter. Despite his parents’ assertions that the jolly old elf exists, this young man seems a lost cause. Suddenly a train rumbles to a stop right outside the boy’s window. Wearing pajamas and slippers, he ventures into the snow to see what’s going on. According to the conductor he is a candidate for The Polar Express, a train that takes children of waning faith on a wild ride to the North Pole where they get to meet the Big Red One in the flesh. Well … sort of. Actually, there are no flesh-and-blood actors onscreen in this computer-generated spin on Chris Van Allsburg’s classic children’s book.
The children (most of whom remain nameless throughout the film) are kind and supportive of one another, sometimes as a remedy to the conductor’s occasional terseness. As the train threatens to leave without a boy who decided too late to board, another child pulls the emergency brake to keep him from being left behind. A lonely soul separated from the group is welcomed with cocoa. After losing a girl’s ticket, a boy bravely attempts to retrieve it. When he can’t, he accepts responsibility and offers her his own. Kids race to each other’s rescue in moments of peril.
The conductor punches each ticket with a word of encouragement specific to that child’s personality and character (learn, lead, believe). Santa is, as we all know, quite generous. He maintains an annual tradition of giving one of his young visitors the ceremonial first gift of Christmas. He tells a greedy, hyper kid to have patience and humility, and praises a little girl’s holiday spirit. He also advises the lonely boy, “There’s no greater gift than friendship.” The main character receives a souvenir from his journey, but loses it through a hole in his pocket, forcing him to believe without the benefit of any physical evidence.
For a Christmas movie, there’s a conspicuous absence of anything even remotely religious. Jesus is out; Santa is in. Once again, a glittery Hollywood confection creates a snow-globe reality that misses the point of the season. Some parents may elect to use the film’s theme of “childlike faith in one who is unseen” to convey a spiritual message, though others will feel uncomfortable using a movie that has consciously stripped Jesus out of Christmas as a means of metaphorically putting Him back in, aided by yuletide myth.
Elsewhere, atop the speeding train a hobo warming himself by a fire appears and disappears at will, suggesting that he is an apparition of some kind. At one point he asks the boy if he believes in ghosts. The conductor alludes to being miraculously rescued once, causing a girl to wonder if an angel was responsible. Santa claims to be a symbol of the spirit of Christmas, adding, “Remember, the true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart.” The conductor says, “Sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.”
There’s no violence per se, but some intense action. And there’s lots of screaming. The runaway train plummets down steep mountains in roller coaster fashion. A desperate boy leaps from car to car, risking life and limb to retrieve a boarding pass. The train jumps its tracks and barely escapes sinking beneath the cracking ice of a frozen lake. Children are left to operate the engine and avert disaster. A boy and the hobo run along the top of the train, trying to reach safety before the locomotive enters a tunnel with low clearance (the mouth of which is shaped like the face of a dragon or demon).
No profanity. Just a use of “heck,” and an elf calls someone a “meshuggener” (Yiddish for “crazy person”).
Young children may be upset by the discovery of a stash of mistreated toys, or frightened when a Scrooge puppet derides a child. Although brightly wrapped and garnished with sentiment, the conductor’s parting words recommend throwing caution to the wind and embracing opportunities regardless of where they might lead (“Thing about trains is, it doesn’t matter where they’re going; it’s deciding to get on”). Actually, it matters very much where they’re going.
As thoroughly secular Christmas stories go, The Polar Express has a tender heart and enough visual tricks to wow even adults. It hopes to succeed where Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within failed. That all-CGI disaster ($137 million to make; $32 million at the box office) was based on a sci-fi video game series. This movie adapts a beloved children’s book. Yet both depend on the ability of audiences to warm up to people created inside a computer. Not the surreal, cartoonish kind racing around in The Incredibles, mind you, but “realistically rendered” human beings whose every pore is a pixel. The jury’s still out.
At times, this film’s synthetic imagery is amazing, from snowflake silhouettes to the convex reflection of a child’s bedroom in a hubcap. I imagine it’s even more impressive on the IMAX screen. The Polar Express also takes the depiction of people to another level, though it wasn’t a warm, intimate enough level to make me fall in love with the characters. I felt like I was watching a technical marvel with lots of bells and whistles, but a pseudo-soul. It didn’t help that the bespectacled young know-it-all (imagine Cheers’ Cliff Clavin as a boy) was voiced by a 46-year-old man who sounded like an adult pretending to be a child.
One dad at an early screening was less concerned about those technical issues than with the way director Robert Zemeckis turned a sweet story into an often scary thrill ride that had his 5-year-old climbing into his lap and asking to go home. “The book is pretty short,” he told me, “so they expanded on the story with eerie scenes and a level of intensity we weren’t expecting. It’s been ratcheted up. Definitely not the kind of G film we were prepared to see.”