Plot: A boy who is losing his faith in Santa finds a strange train, the Polar Express, arriving on his doorstep in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve. It’s a round trip to the North Pole to meet Santa and he decides to get on the train to see if Santa truly exists.
Breakdown: Ah, the Polar Express. A movie that seemed like an instant classic from day it was released. Today, it airs throughout the month of December, year after year, quickly becoming a staple for Christmas traditions in households across the globe.
I have personally seen this movie several times since its release in 2004, and I have enjoyed watching it over the years.
That being said, rewatching under a more critical eye….this movie has numerous problems. Let’s just get one of the major landmarks out of the way; this movie uses motion capture for almost all of its human animation, something I can’t really find myself getting behind. Remember the big backlash against rotoscoping? The animation technique where animators trace over live-action footage to animate a scene? Many classic Disney features have rotoscoping, and a whole slue of people find the animation form to be lazy and, to an extreme, not real art or animation.
In a word; cheating.
But ya know, despite the fact that it does indeed seem like a cheap way to animate, you still do need the artistic skill and know-how to make it work as an animation. You can tell anyone off the street to trace a few frames of a live-action scene to make an animation and it would probably look like crap. Plus, Disney and numerous other companies usually had the talent and understanding to know that pretty animation and creep-ily realistic human faces only go so far. You need to couple that with strong characters, a good story and emotional connections.
Despite the fact that I find motion capture to be much worse in the means of cheating and WAY creepier with the faces, the same credo still stands; the animation itself and purty visuals only goes so far, you need strong characters, good stories and emotional connections to make a good animated feature.
So how does The Polar Express fare here?
Well, I guess the first red flag would be that three of the four main characters don’t have actual names. They’re simply referenced as Hero boy, Hero Girl and Know-It-All-Kid. Just the fact that they have no names is a big sign of Mary Sue and Gary Stu syndrome…Couple that with the fact that no one outside of the final main character, Billy, gets any sort of backstory and has little personality really makes it seem like, yeah, these characters really are just meant to have your face plastered on them so you can take the ride on the Polar Express and meet Santa.
Hero Boy is probably the worst offender because, hell, at least Hero Girl and Know-it-all have personalities. Outside of constantly being a Santa Skeptic, Hero Boy has no personality.
And you’d think after jumping on board a clearly magic train to the North Pole that he would shoo away those thoughts. But no, it takes him forever to start re-believing. There’s a scene directly after he gets on board the Polar Express where the train passes by a department store and while everyone clamors at all the Christmas stuff, the one thing that Hero Boy focuses on is a robotic Santa in the front window that he shakes his head at the sight of. Like, dude, of course a department store display has a fake Santa. Why are you ignoring that you witnessed that from a MAGIC TRAIN?
It is realistic for a kid his age to start questioning Santa’s existence. I can imagine this kid is about 8 to 10. Despite the fact that I never believed in Santa, I imagine many people who weren’t cold turkey bitchslapped with the Santa secret can sympathize with those years of suspicion. But that really is all there is to him.
Hero Girl fares a little better. Her personality is also not much to write home about, but at least it’s not as boring or one-note as Hero Boy. She’s very nice and involved and has a concrete belief and mysticism in Santa. However, each kid needs a big lesson to learn so it’s like they tried to crowbar in a character flaw for her to have to make this work; a flaw that she logically shouldn’t have.
Throughout the movie, she has no problems with confidence. She’s the one who confronts Billy, she’s the one who tries to cheer him up and makes him appreciate the magic of Christmas and Santa, she doesn’t put up with crap etc. So they decided her main issue would be that she can’t make decisions, especially in times of emergencies. She has no confidence in her decisions and freezes up when someone asks her if she’s sure about something, which, in my eyes, greatly contrasts against everything we know about her, the little we have anyway.
Know-it-all kid should’ve been shoved from the damn train. He does nothing but force facts down people’s throats when no one asks him about it. He contributes nothing, and his voice? Done by Eddie Deezen….Oh I’m sorry, need a refresher? He’s the same guy who voices Mandark from Dexter’s Lab.
Yup. It’s him. And he is doing absolutely nothing to differentiate his voice from his Mandark voice, making it both super distracting because you feel like Mandark is on the Polar Express and super annoying because it’s friggin’ Mandark’s voice.
Finally, you have Billy, who is the most interesting character of the movie because he has a name. Billy, in many respects, is very similar to Hero Boy. He’s skeptical of Santa’s existence….But he has a very legit reasoning behind it, especially since he seems to be a few years younger than Hero Boy. You see, Billy comes from a poor family, meaning his Christmases have been pretty bare present-wise. Because of this, Billy believes that either Santa doesn’t exist or he straight up forgets about him.
I thought that this movie might actually have the balls to address a very real criticism of the Santa myth; why do poor kids consistently get looked over? Rich kids, who probably get everything they want year-round, get everything they want and more on Christmas, from Santa, but poor kids don’t really get much. You’d think Santa would be more intent on getting good presents to poor kids on Christmas since they have to scrape by through the rest of the year.
Sorry, Billy. Santa couldn’t get you a bike this year. Little Thurston needed a new cherry red Jaguar to go with his afternoon smoking jacket and it took up too much room in his sleigh. Ho ho ho!
Billy also has a bit more personality. He’s reserved and quite shy. In his first scene, he separates himself from the other kids mostly in shame that his family’s poor and partially because he knows they’ll be discussing cool gifts and stuff in the main car.
It really makes you wonder why Billy’s not the main character. By all means, he should be. He takes care of everything the main character is and more.
As for the story, it’s fine in its simplicity and it’s a really cool concept that some kids (chosen by some criteria that I can’t really understand) get to visit Santa once in their lives. However, there are a bunch of big problems with it.
One of the biggest being that this is littered in padding. In fact, you could probably take most of the train ride out of the movie and it’d still be the same movie story-wise. There’s just so much of doing nothing substantial. Like the hot chocolate song and dance number or the fact that there’s a whole scene dedicated to watching a train ticket fly through the air through several points only to get back to the train on its own or watching a cotter pin fly through the air a bunch of times only to get back to its spot or stopping the train for hundreds of thousands maybe a million caribou that are crossing the tracks only to literally be parted like the Red Sea with the howls of a man having his beard pulled (It happens) or the weird and sudden Steven Tyler elf concert at the North Pole (It…also happens.)
I can’t even really say this movie is more about the journey than the destination, despite its name. When your destination is the North Pole and visiting Santa, there is definitely a buildup for the destination.
If it’s more the destination than the journey….then that’s also a huge problem because the title of the movie is ‘The Polar Express’ not ‘The Quick Train Ride to Get to the North Pole to Meet Santa and Have Christmas Adventures’
Not to mention that the destination….is disappointing. Now, you probably saw this coming, but despite my gripes I do actually enjoy watching the train ride part of the movie. It may star nameless blank slates doing nothing, but it’s still a fun ride during Christmas. As for the North Pole…I was always horribly disappointed in that.
The North Pole feels more like a….well, I guess it’s kinda redundant to say this, but it’s like a factory. The entire place just seems like, more or less, a well-decorated industrial complex. When you spend your whole movie screaming ‘LOOK AT OUR AWESOME VISUALS! THE DETAILS! SEE THAT TEXTURE?! LOOK AT THOSE EFFECTS! Ignore the people. WHOA, RIGHT!?’ in our faces, you expect the North Pole, our main destination and the North friggin’ Pole, to be awe-inspiring not….decent.
Oh well, maybe the people are charming…..Nope. The elves are some of the creepiest sons of bitches I’ve ever seen, even if the acrobatic ones are kinda cool, and it really seems like it was intended to be that way. Santa isn’t a holly jolly bowl of jello, he’s a wise stoic fairly stone-faced intimidating man who is almost always filmed at an upward angle, which might be to make him seem more intimidating or accentuate the supposed self-insert point of this movie.
He’s definitely not mean, and he is a bit warm and friendly, but it’s a strange air about him. He hardly ever smiles. I have no problem with different takes on Santa, but I don’t care for this one much.
But what of the individual character hurdles? If anything significant, the train ride was about accentuating the various character flaws that each of them have. They have golden train tickets to further highlight the lessons that they must learn. The conductor uses his hole punch to make two letters in the ticket when they get on the train and he finishes the word IE lesson when they depart the North Pole.
Surely, if anything at all, there’s substance in these character lessons.
Let’s start with Billy, who, as I stated, has the most interesting arc. Poor Billy; overlooked by Santa his whole childhood to the point where Billy questions his existence. Billy doesn’t get much of a part for the first third of the movie. He just separates himself from the other kids and stays quiet.
His first big scene is also our second song number of the movie ‘When Christmas Comes to Town’. It’s a duet with Hero Girl, and I only recently noticed that this song seems a bit….cruel? Billy’s singing about how he never gets visited by Santa on Christmas and how he just wishes he can have a good Christmas like everyone else. Meanwhile, Hero Girl is singing about all the good things about Christmas, including presents underneath the tree, that Billy contests with never having experienced most of it.
In other words;
Billy (Coincidentally also known as ‘Lonely Boy’): I never get presents or hear Santa’s sleigh or put up decorations with my friends.
Hero Girl: Boy I sure love getting presents and hearing Santa’s sleigh and putting up decorations with friends!
And that somehow cheers him up. ???
I also wanna pause for a second to point something out; most of the passengers on the Polar Express are privileged American kids, mostly white. Is there any reason at all why there aren’t kids from all over the globe? Who selects the kids every year to go on the train? There are only like 20-30 kids on board. Again, you’d think the less fortunate kids would be the top of the list to see Santa, but nope.
Billy’s next big scene is when he sees the first present on Santa’s conveyor belt is, coincidentally, his. So he latches onto that thing like it’s a lifetime pass to Disney World and refuses to let go. He’s super excited about his gift, especially since he believes it’s one he’s wanted his whole life. Don’t really know what it is, but if the sound is any indication he’s always wanted twenty boxes of cereal.
However, he is saddened when he sees a tag on it saying that it’s not to be opened until Christmas.
Later, Santa approaches him and makes a joke out of forgetting him. It’s played off like a legit joke, even Billy laughs, but dude, the hell? Santa points out that Billy’s made some friends and that friendship is the greatest gift of all. End character arc.
Yup, they decided to not address why Billy was shafted his entire life gift-wise, and considering, based off of his moniker of ‘Lonely boy’ that he’s never had many or any friends before….what the hell? Did Santa set it up so that Billy would make friends on this trip or is whatever’s in that box worth 7-ish years of suck? Billy never even asks him about it, he’s just happy he finally gets a gift and gets to see Santa.
Plus, Hero Boy and Hero Girl don’t even live in his state, so it might be pretty hard to maintain this friendship, especially if this story is taking place before the Internet.
To close out his story, they show Billy arriving at home showing that Santa got to his house and delivered his present.
His ticket word(s) are ‘Depend on, rely on and count on.’ I don’t really get Billy’s lesson here. Is it that he’s to be relied on? Or that he should rely on others more? Nothing in his character arc has really indicated anything about reliability. Did you mean to give that ticket to Joe from Digimon? I’m guessing it’s the latter because the conductor asks Billy if he’ll rely on them to take him home. I don’t get it.
Next there’s Hero Girl. We get our first sniff of her ‘are you sure?’ problem when Hero Boy asks if she’ll be alright delivering hot chocolate (they’ve got it) to Billy in the other car. Her first highlight of this problem is when she’s tasked to drive the train. Because intelligence. The conductor and engineer aren’t around, and they’re told to stop the train because of something in the tracks. She believes she knows which lever to pull to stop it, but freezes up when Hero Boy asks if she’s sure.
And that’s it. I also have to say, after Hero Boy’s little episode trying frantically to wake himself up from what he believed to be a dream after meeting the Hobo….Hero Girl’s completely fake lockup was just poorly done. The animation puts no emotion or drama into it and neither does the girl’s voice acting. It really kinda seems like she’s faking it, especially after peeking through her fingers, to make Hero Boy make the final decision.
Her character ‘arc’ comes to a peak when suddenly, out of nowhere, she responds to ‘Are you sure?’ with ‘Absolutely!’……Really, there’s nothing to connect the second part and the final one. She goes from freezing and covering her eyes in response to the question to confidently proclaiming that she’s sure. I mean….maybe because it involves her belief in Santa? Hero Boy asks her if she’s sure of where she’s going as she follows the sound of sleigh bells that Hero Boy can’t hear, and that’s when she makes that response.
I just don’t know. It’s like they flipped a switch in her to make her more confident in her decisions.
When Santa approaches her later, he commends her for her strong decision making skills and Christmas spirit. Her ticket word is revealed to be ‘lead’.
Finally there’s Hero Boy. The opener basically explains his entire personality and character in just a handful of shots. Though, it does make him come off as kinda obsessive over the Santa thing. I mean, he seriously collects newspaper clippings and magazine cutouts which contain evidence of Santa not existing.
After that, on the train, he has a scene with a mysterious Hobo that rides on the Polar Express all the time. He’s supposedly a ghost, but I honestly don’t understand who he’s a ghost of. Did the Polar Express hit a hobo at one time and now he haunts the train?
The Hobo scene, despite my liking it because the Hobo seems like the second most interesting character in the movie, is also merely to emphasize the character dilemma of Hero Boy and explore it a tiny bit more, not really to further the story. You could say the Hobo is an illusion of Hero Boy, but he’s been shown on the train prior to this and Hero Boy was nowhere around.
Later, the Hobo torments him through a Scrooge marionette (Hi shameless plug for Zemeckis’ next motion capture movie, A Christmas Carol) claiming him to be a doubter. Hero Boy runs off through a creepy car filled with broken toys that are meant to be recycled by Santa and that’s it.
Probably the most impacting of his scenes is his arc’s finale where he finds that he’s unable to hear Santa’s sleigh bells, even when he’s very close to a whole bunch of them. Though, I find this kind of odd. I assume non-believers and skeptics can’t hear the bells, but…he’s at the North Pole. He just took a magical train ride to said pole. He just took a ride on a giant sack of presents. He’s surrounded by elves. He’s seeing the sleigh bells being put on flying reindeer attached to a sleigh. Does he really need to be face to face with the jolly red giant to finally have full belief?
Despite that, this is the first time you kinda start feeling emotion-like things for the kid. It’s been established that he wants to believe in Santa and the fact that he’s missing out on what is considered one of the most magical parts of Santa and Christmas because of his inner debate is kinda sad.
A single silver bell comes loose from the reindeer and flies to where Hero Boy is. When he picks it up and shakes it to his ear, all he hears is Hobo whispering ‘doubter’ over and over. I should also state that Hero Boy, despite not having a decent look at him because of crazed Santa groupie elves blocking his view, has seen Santa at this point. Apparently seeing isn’t believing.
In desperation, Hero Boy finally says to himself over and over that he believes. Ya know, the whole faith thing kinda loses it value if you’ve seen and experienced what you’re believing in. I’m sure more people would ‘believe’ in aliens, bigfoot and unicorns if they were right in our faces and we had plenty of time to research and experience their existence.
Of course, as he says this, he tries again and lo and behold he can hear the bell now. Not only that, but Santa approaches them to go down the line of kids to talk to them. Only the kids we’ve been introduced to because to hell with the rest. They’re basically part of the background. Santa selects Hero Boy to receive the first gift of Christmas and he asks to keep the silver bell. Santa agrees and states that the silver bell is a symbol of the spirit of Christmas, but of course, say it with me, the true spirit of Christmas is in his heart.
His ticket word is—Do I even need to say it? Just guess. It starts with a B.
Later on, Hero Boy loses the bell because he stupidly put it in a pocket that had a huge hole in it; and he knew it had a huge hole in it. But of course the bell returns to him the next morning as a present under the tree. Closing narration from Tom I-play-most-of-the-characters-in-this-movie Hanks reveals that everyone he knew eventually lost the ability to hear the bell, but not him. Even in old age. And not anyone else who was a true believer.
In regards to the—Oh yeah, I forgot about Know-It-All Kid. He has a nothing role of popping up between scenes to be annoying and spout out facts. He follows the really main three through Santa’s factory to see his gift and complains about it being underwear. He continues to be a twat until an elf calls him out and Santa tells him he needs more humility. Then boom he’s nice and admits when he’s made a mistake. It’s like car crash character development in here.
His ticket word is ‘Learn’ which is kinda dumb because in order to be a know-it-all you kinda have to learn a bit. ‘Humility’ probably would’ve been a better word.
Bottomline: There’s just something about this movie that feels….fake. It feels like it’s trying too hard to be this epic impacting Christmas movie for all ages, but there’s something here that just doesn’t feel genuine. Even the characters look like moving plastic dolls instead of actual characters. I’m not saying I don’t feel Christmas-y when watching this movie, and it does hit the regular beats that Christmas movies typically have, maybe more, but it just feels like most of it is set dressing for a rather hollow story.
Maybe it would’ve been better as a short?
If not forcing itself to be a classic from the getgo, this movie is clearly meant to be an experience or a roller coaster ride instead of dwelling on silly things like characters and story. Visually, this movie is just gorgeous most of the time……as long as you ignore the people, and Robert Zemeckis did a fantastic job directing. The angles and reliance on fast-paced action scenes definitely do seem like this was meant to be a Christmas ride. I’m completely fine with this as it is a very fun movie, but you lose quite a bit of the fun of the ride when not watching the movie in IMAX theaters or at least in 3D. So many shots are quite obviously panning to the 3D that it makes us homely 2D watchers feel a bit left out.
They also make a kinda…weird decision once. There’s a scene in the elf control room where there’s a ton of screens showing children around the world (or just the US/English speaking first world countries). That’s the creepy we kinda have to take with Santa, but the weird part is….all of the kids….are live-action. Yep, no motion capture for them. They are pure live-action. And it’s not like a glance at them either; they stay on screen for several minutes and we even hear dialogue from one. It’s just so weird. For a movie trying its hardest to make all the CGI look realistic, they didn’t even bother putting any on those shots. Either they were too lazy to do so, wanted the audience to more closely connect with the movie or they wanted to see if we could tell the difference, which we obviously can by a freakin’ mile.
To be honest, I don’t even understand that scene. Time’s been frozen at five to midnight for over an hour (roughly?) so how are the kids on these monitors moving?
And you know, for a movie that is aiming for realism, why do they pay such great attention to the individual hairs on the boys’ heads but the damn loop braided pigtails on Hero Girl never move an inch?
I’m getting off-topic and this review’s running a bit long. The point is, I do really like the Polar Express. It’s a fun Christmas ride that does have a bit of heart beneath the creepy plastic faces and dead eyes. I watch the movie every year and I can’t see myself stopping that tradition any time soon.
However, I can’t deny that it completely fails to do even basic parts of movie making and writing correctly. If this is just meant to be a self-insert Christmas ride without deep character or story elements to help that feeling along, then fine. I understand that. You’ve made a great roller coaster for Christmas. But it also means that you’re sacrificing quality as a movie. I can’t see myself watching this movie outside of the month of December; something I can do for many great Christmas movies and specials. There’s no where near enough substance to even make me think about it.
It’s very flawed, but very fun. And in the end, movies are supposed to be entertaining. Fun. So, since it’s Christmas, I’m not going to fault the movie as much as I should. Hop on board the Polar Express on the biggest screen you can manage, and you can still catch it in theaters, IMAX and otherwise around Christmastime, so there’s that. No matter if you can hear the bells or not, the ride there is worth it.
Recommended Audience: E for everyone!