Thursday, December 24, 2009

Film Review: Polar Express

"Polar Express" *** (out of ****)

The highest compliment I can pay "The Polar Express" (2004) is it seems to have been made from a child's imagination. What I mean is, the film looks the way I would expect a child to imagine the North Pole looks like and how Santa Claus looks. It seems filled with the wonderment and joy children associate with Santa Claus and Christmas.

And I'm even willing to pay the film another compliment. I would consider it a modern Christmas classic. I personally I have included it among the Christmas films I need to watch every year just like "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946) or "White Christmas" (1954), both of which I have reviewed.

So after such compliments why am I not giving the film a higher rating? Why have I only stopped at three stars? First of the all the film is a technical marvel. I am more impressed with this film's technical achievements, it was the first film to use "digital capture motion", than I was when I saw "Avatar" (2009). Now, I'm just asking for trouble aren't I? But the reason I wouldn't give this a full four stars for example is because despite what I previously said, the film could have done more to capture the magic of Christmas. Every time I watch the movie I become very impressed with the beginning. I like the world the film creates with the young boy headed on the train, the mystery surrounding it and the possibilities which the journey suggest. But I always feel the film becomes too much of an action/adventure story with all the antics concerning the train falling off tracks and the children getting into trouble. I would have preferred the film focus on the children and their wonderment without the action scenes but instead focus on them each of them, particularly the hero, learning the meaning of Christmas holiday.

"The Polar Express" represent a kind of secular holiday. In this film Christmas is a time for Santa Claus, the North Pole and presents. And to be fair I suppose that's what Christmas is for every child. The religious side of the holiday gets lost on children. But, I find as I get older, the religious aspects mean more to me. Perhaps because the "magic of Santa Claus" has left me. Now the holiday is about celebrating the birth of Christ and appreciating the time I spend with my friends and family. Secretly I wish the film would have found a way to incorporate that into the film. That our young hero would have also learned the importance of family during the holiday not just to believe in the wonder of Santa Claus and that Christmas time keeps us young in our hearts.

After watching "The Watchmen" (2009) earlier this year and recently the epic and over hyped "Avatar" I've come to the conclusion special effects are no longer special to me. I need more than to merely look at a movie and be impressed with the technical advancements of a film. "Avatar" felt like little more than a special effects roller coaster. I need a story. I need to feel a connection to what I am watching on screen. That is what I feel separates "The Polar Express" from other "special effects" movie. Though as I said I wish it would have went deeper. Still the story is interesting enough and at times emotionally involving enough that I am willing to go along on the journey and not just sit there in awe of the effects. I felt a similar reaction to Robert Zemeckis' recent film "A Christmas Carol" (2009), which I feel is one of the best films of the year.

In "The Polar Express" a young boy, who is never given a name but played by Tom Hanks and voiced by Daryl Sabara, has decided he no longer believes in Santa Claus. He believes he has exposed the myth. How, for instance, can Santa fly all over the world so fast? Where does he put all the presents? And what about all those department store Santas? What are they up to? The so called "magic" of Christmas is leaving the boy as he grows older. But, one Christmas Eve, as he is restlessly awake, hoping to get a sneak at Santa, to prove his exist, a train approaches the young boy's house. Though he seems to have been the only one awaken by it. He rushes outside and finds a train called "The Polar Express" is ready to take him to the North Pole to meet Santa just before he heads out to delivery all the children's presents. The young boy boards the train where he meets other children like the know-it-all (Eddie Deezen) and the Girl (Nona Gaye) and a Lonely Boy (Peter Scolari) who says "Christmas doesn't work out for him". We suspect because the family is so poor he never gets any presents. Our hero seems to be the only one to doubt Santa's existence. But a larger question to ask is, is this all a dream? Do the children represent different sides of his personality?

As I already said the film becomes an action/adventure film with the train going off track, both literally and figuratively. And the children roaming off on their own searching for presents. The obstacle is to get to the town square of the North Pole where Santa will pick one of the children and give out the first present of Christmas.

Tom Hanks stars in the film and plays various roles. Among them the young boy, the train conductor, a hobo, who may or not be ghost and the big man himself, Santa. He manages to give each character a distinct personality, though he spends the most time playing the Conductor, which looks the most like him compared to the other characters he plays.

The director Robert Zemeckis seems to be the director who has perfected this "digital capture motion" technology, now having made three films in this style; "The Polar Express", "Beowolf" (2007) and "A Christmas Carol". Of course he and Hanks have worked together before on "Cast Away" (2000) and the Oscar winner "Forrest Gump" (1994), perhaps my favorite Zemeckis film.

The story is based on Chris Van Allsburg novel, and if this film is a faithful adaptation I'm willing to bet the book is a wonderful read which really lets children's imagination go wild.

This Christmas Eve I think a family sitting together watching "The Polar Express" will find a lot to enjoy and share a lot of Christmas magic.