I try not to have expectations when I go to see films. Often, my problem is usually that I'm excited about a film's opening, and my expectations are usually high. In the case of "The Polar Express", my expectations were actually pretty low.
Growing up, I would read and reread "The Polar Express", a book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, every Christmas. It still ranks as one of my favorite children's books. The story was great, the illustrations were amazing, and the book never lost its charm to me as I got older.
Naturally, when I heard they were making a movie out of it, and an animated one at that, I could not help but dismiss it as a ploy for Hollywood to take a sweet, timeless children's fable, and exploit it for a cheap buck. Now that I've actually seen the movie, I can say that it was far better than I thought it would be.
Director Robert Zemekis, who also co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay, managed not only to make the film look amazing, but still kept the heart and the main moral of the original book within the movie. There are a lot of parts here that were not in the book, like the train slipping on an icy lake, and the caboose disattaching from the train with some of the kids on it. However, the really important parts of the book were maintained here. The main boy in the story still wants a bell, Santa gives it to him, and . . . you can figure out the rest.
I didn't expect to like many of the additional characters they added to the movie, but I thought they were all characterized very well. I liked how the conductor (Tom Hanks) actually had a personality, unlike in the book where the focus was solely on the boy. I also liked how the boy interacted with other kids on the train, especially an African-American girl (Nona Gaye) whom he befriends. There's also a really sweet song called "Spirit of the Season" that she sings along with a boy credited as "Lonely Boy". The way the song is sung, and the CGI-imaging of the night sky, are both truly spectacular.
Some of the films excursions that I thought were going to be cheap plot devices actually served the film well. After all, a book that's roughly 30 pages long probably won't amount to a 2-hour movie. Still, these subplots were used in a way to not only cleverly characterize the main characters, but also to give a better dimension to the North Pole. You would never see the elves, how they transport themselves, and what the villages in Santa's North Pole look like if the film stuck straight to the book. Zemekis has consistently been very good at using computer animation to add not only to characters, but make their worlds far more elaborate and interesting.
With all that said, I had some major reservations about the film. While the animation was really good in terms of set design, I hated how it made the humans look. They almost looked like zombies at times, and it was a little scary.
Don't get me wrong. Motion capture animation is pretty amazing, and probably not as time consuming as regular animation. However, when the main characters are humans, and the conductor looks exactly like Tom Hanks, why not just film them? That would probably cut the $165 million budget down significantly, or at least I would imagine.
Also, it really irked me that most of the children did not have names. The main character is labeled "Hero Boy" in the closing credits, the black girl is named "Hero Girl", a nerdy boy is credited as "Know-It-All", and so on. Why not give them names? What's the harm in naming Hero Boy something like Tommy or Jimmy? It's not hard.
I also hated how the main characters are kids, yet the actors who do the voices for them are not kids. "Hero Boy" is actually voiced by Tom Hanks, although he actually sounds like a real kid. Same with Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, and Eddie Deezen. While their child voices sound authentic, it seems like a lot of unnecessary work to digitally doctor their voices to make them sound like kids. Why not just (Gee, I don't know!) hire child actors to do the voices!?!?! It worked for "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965), and it can't be difficult.
Tom Hanks doing the voices of six different characters felt more gimmicky to me than cutting edge. Hanks is far from the first actor to play multiple roles in a single movie, but Peter Sellers, Lee Marvin, or Eddie Murphy he is not. In the movies those actors were in as multiple characters, they disappeared into their characters so much that their multiple roles showed their acting ranges. Here, every character Hanks voices (except the boy) sounds like Hanks. You can tell that Hanks is the voice of the conductor, the hobo, the boy's father, and Santa Claus. The gimmick is so distracting that it takes you out of the movie for a few moments.
While "The Polar Express" has its hang ups, it can and should be considered the first Christmas classic of the CGI-age. It still gets re-released into theaters every Christmas, as it has a renewed following thanks to great 3D effects that are becoming increasingly popular amongst moviegoers. It also is one of the only adaptations of a children's book that adds to its source while also maintaining its heart. My guess is that many generations will return to it year after year, and it will keep ringing just like the bell in the story.
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