—About this Film pdf file
The popular 1986 Caldecott Medal Award winning story by Chris Van Allsburg has finally made it to the silver screen. Not only has it made it to the screen, it has chugged in with a velocity only those familiar with the story can understand. Robert Zemeckis again teams up with Tom Hanks to bring to the silver screen magic: not just magic in story, but magic in style.
It is likely that 2004 will go down in history as an innovative year in the style and technique of making movies. Along with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Polar Express breaks new ground in technique that is simply awe-inspiring. It is the first thing you notice about this movie. The visuals have an impact from the opening credits up until the final credit sequences.
Robert Zemeckis has been thrilled by the story of The Polar Express, as have others, for almost 2 decades now. It was the magic of the story that helped inspire him to make something magical, and something magical is what he achieved. He was so impressed with the story that he wanted to maintain the visual effects that were contained in the books illustrations. Many of us have marveled at the current style of illustrations included in many contemporary works: visual, bright, and brilliant colors that are as pleasing to watch and view as it is for many to listen to a well-conducted and trained orchestra. Zemeckis was so impressed that he has made the effort to include every frame of artwork from the book somewhere in the visuals for the movie. For those loving the book, you will be inspired and blessed by the movie. That, in itself makes The Polar Express worth watching. Such intricate detail is something that Zemeckis is noted for, and this movie is far from a let down.
In regard to detail, there are several sequences in the movie that are among the best animation ever filmed. The sequence that has one of the passenger tickets flying through the air (obviously right out of Forrest Gump) must be among the best animation ever. For this one sequence alone, the movie justifies the price of a movie ticket.
In order to blend in the obvious animation, scenery, and detail that brings together all of these attributes with a live action shots, Zemeckis solicited the help of multi - Academy Award Winner for Visual Effects, Ken Ralston. How impressive is his work? I would say here, to start inscribing his name on the Award for 2004. The work is so visionary that he may eventually be considered for a lifetime achievement award for the same work. From this reviewer’s perspective, I was so impressed that I will be making a 4-hour drive in the next two weeks to view this marvel on the IMAX Screen in wonderful 3-D. The style called Performance Capture is unique and original and The Polar Express is the first full-length motion picture to use this technique and to be filmed in 3-D for IMAX purposes.
The story of The Polar Express is one that all of us have lived through on some level. What about Santa Claus? Is he real? What about Christmas? For those seeking deep spiritual truths of the real St. Nicholas or the story of the Christ Child, you won't find those in this story. But if you are looking for innocence and a reason to believe, not just in Christmas but in the “spirit of Christmas” that lives in each of us, you will be pleasantly surprised. While the story and formula are common, the journey that takes us from the opening credits to the closing credits makes this film all worthwhile. In addition, with a little searching you will find ample spiritual themes that will open up doors to discuss for the real intent behind Christmas.
Using a formula made popular by the classic The Wizard of Oz, we never really know throughout the film if the primary character is living the experience or just living in a dream. The knowledge of that is brought to our understanding at the conclusion of the film in a way that reminds all of us of the importance of bells, similar to It’s a Wonderful Life.
There are some fascinating spiritual scenarios in the film that are worthy of note. The process of faith (belief) is critical to the story itself. The character has to come to the task of deciding what to believe and what not to believe. His entire life will be influenced by his decision, and he will be forced to endure the results. Along the way, a character who provides the way to and from the North Pole I found to be like Jesus in many regards. He was the deliverer; he was the one that the boy had to answer to. After giving an invitation to get on the train, he did not force any child to make the decision, the decision was theirs to make. This character was sent to serve and help people. He is loving most of the time, but can be stern when need be. This character is all about serving, delivering and helping those that he was sent to serve and deliver.
Another character with spiritual components was the Hobo or Ghost. Like the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, this character is there to give insight to the boy, to answer questions, to help him along the journey to make the right decisions. When needing to be caught from the grips of death, the Spirit was there; when needing to have information on how to stop a runaway train, the Spirit was there to give advice to the boy. The boy has to respond and make his own decisions even here, but the Spirit knows how to relate.
Then there is the character of Santa Claus. He gives gifts and everyone is at the North Pole to worship and to serve him. He brings about wonderful scenes of praise and glory, while at the same time demanding reverence. There is even the “heavenly choir” filled with elves that resemble angels. A fun point of this is that the choir at one point is led by band mate and leader Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. This Santa Claus character has as his desire the need to give gifts specifically to humans. He sees all, he knows all, he even gives second chances when need be, but will ultimately make a judgment regarding each individual on the planet.
Each child along the journey has challenges and obstacles to overcome. There are ample illustrations of the roller coaster of life that many of us live on, and I couldn’t help --while watching this movie-- thinking of the song "People Get Ready", "There’s a Train a'Coming." The truth is, one of the things that make this story so brilliant is that it is an analogy of not just Santa Claus and Christmas but for the very reason that Christmas exists. The reason as best described in John 3:16; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.”
I could go on and on about this movie. I actually saw it twice in two days and am glad I did, otherwise I might not have picked up on some of the spiritual themes that are there. From a soundtrack that I will buy, one of the best Christmas soundtracks with classic and original songs to new tunes that will become classics, this movie was a wonderful experience.
I must comment on a couple of things that I did have some issues with. I greatly admire the person of Tom Hanks, and he seems to make movies that I admire and like. That being said, I think he overextended himself in this movie. In some ways, him playing the parts of five characters was jus a distraction for me. I would have liked to see other actors bring their strengths to some of those parts. However, I imagine that that arrangement in itself has symbolic intent from the makers of this story. I have come to some conclusions as to that intent and it would be interesting to hear others give their thoughts on this issue.
I must also comment on the fact that this is Michael Jeter’s last movie. Jeter for years has been one of my favorite character actors. It is obvious that they had to use some voice-over work for Jeter’s voice, but that is okay. The time his character is on screen is a wonderful time. This is a movie that I am confident Michael Jeter would have been proud of.
This holiday season, we are all blessed as a moviegoing audience. We have two of the best to come around in some time in The Polar Express and The Incredibles. It is ironic that both are animated movies to some extent, although I would classify The Polar Express in its own category, other than animation. Both movies have tremendous spiritual significance and impact. Both come at a time of year when we have no better opportunity to talk to others about issues of faith and spirituality.
On a scale of 1 – 10, for the wonderful number of letters in “Christmas,” a very enjoyable 9.