“This bell is a wonderful symbol of the spirit of Christmas; as am I. Just remember, the true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart,” says Santa Claus to the boy.
In 1985, Chris Van Allsburg published a short children’s book called The Polar Express. It centered on a boy who boarded a magical train that was headed to the North Pole, where he was picked by Santa to receive the first gift of Christmas. The book was brought to the attention of Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis chose to adapt the short story into a feature-length film; one that was computer-animated and would feature motion capture performances from actors. I had the opportunity to see the film twice on the big screen when it first came out nine years ago and enjoyed every minute of it. It was quite a technical achievement (one that I feel is still not fully appreciated even today) and can proudly take its place as a holiday classic.
It’s funny how the film was written off as a holiday flop after its second weekend of release in the U.S. (it had grossed approximately $50 million at that point and everyone seemed intent on mentioning the film’s $165 million budget). Luckily, positive word-of-mouth helped it surge at the box office on Thanksgiving weekend, and it would continue to do so throughout the holiday season (it eventually grossed over $162 million in its initial domestic theatrical run). What was it that kept drawing audiences to the film? Tom Hanks in an animated film playing several different characters? The terrific songs (which I admit surprised me on my first viewing but in a good way)? For me, it’s the journey of the boy that always brings me back to the film. The boy has lost his faith in Christmas and no longer believes in Santa Claus (for the record, I do know that *SPOILER ALERT* there is no Santa Claus). The magical train called the Polar Express stops outside the boy’s home, where the conductor invites him to take a trip to the North Pole (and explains why). The boy is hesitant at first, but then takes a leap of faith (one of several he’ll make throughout the film) and accepts the invitation.
The boy’s journey presents a number of obstacles to overcome on his adventure, and along the way he grows as a person. Seeing is certainly believing, especially when the boy meets old Saint Nick himself. In the world presented in the film, the boy rediscovers his faith in something that is real through Christmas magic. I wonder if this ever bothered deeply religious people (those who really put their faith in something that is NOT real). I’m still a little surprised at how well the adaptation works after all these years. The motion capture performances are a delight, Alan Silvestri’s hauntingly beautiful score is short but very memorable, and the computer animation allowed Zemeckis to create continuous long takes (the one involving the lost ticket is still my favorite). It’s still a shame that computer-animated films featuring motion capture performances aren’t seriously considered for a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod (this film was superior to Shark Tale, which got an undeserved nod instead). The Oscar-nominated song “Believe,” performed by Josh Groban, is still a holiday favorite amongst Christmas songs. Zemeckis’ film has given people so much joy over the years and will continue to do so for years to come.