The Polar Express (2004)

polar express

Haunting probably best describes The Polar Express, the performance capture film based on Chris Van Allsberg’s classic children’s book. Critics howled about the creepy computer animation when it was released in 2004, and technological advancements seem to have only reinforced that view. I too spent a good half hour bemoaning the fact that the characters looked like they had just stepped out from a disturbing nightmare, their faces blotched and taut, every movement mechanical yet beckoning a shade of reality. There’s something deeply unsettling about the vacancy in their eyes, the feeling that they’re not quite looking at you but can still see you, completely.

Haunted, however, is also how I felt after letting go of my initial repulsion and allowing myself to be swept along this fantastical journey. You won’t find another Christmas film like it. Nearly every scene takes place at night under the vast dome of a Prussian blue sky as the Polar Express, a magical train that takes unbelieving children to the North Pole, rumbles through the barren tundra. Most holiday movies try to seduce audiences with festive bursts of clang and clamor, but this one is characterized by a remarkable stillness.

To be sure, action erupts throughout but more often in short, frenzied bursts. A parade of singing, dancing waiters somersaults into the car with steaming mugs of hot chocolate for the children. The nameless main character, trying to return a lost ticket to his fellow passenger, ends up atop the train and is nearly flattened as they hurtle towards a tunnel. Then a loose pin causes the lumbering locomotive to lurch from its tracks and slide uncontrollably across a frozen lake, sheets of ice giving way underneath.

But when the flurry subsides, what remains is space, great visual, aural swaths of it. The movie is unafraid of quiet and emptiness, knowing that it gives room for wonder and imagination. This is a story that lets you breathe, that provides landscapes to be explored and filled in. The North Pole is simultaneously rich with detail but uncluttered. It elicits a grand turn-of-the-century train station and city center without laying down a blueprint for every square inch. After they arrive, the three main children get separated from the others and disappear into a cavernous underground. As they try to make their way out, you never quite know what the shadows hide. Even where the frames are rich with detail, much is left unsaid, untouched. One of the eeriest scenes takes place in a train car full of abandoned toys. The boy and girl creep silently by, eyeing them with a suspicion that the toys seem to return.

There’s a darkness, even a menace that would be out of place in almost every other Christmas movie but that is perfectly suited for this one, a film both about and for those who want to be vulnerable to a certain Christmas magic. The boy is ready to close the door on Santa, but he, like many of us, wants to believe, happily giving into the pure, childish joy of Christmas if he could be convinced it wasn’t a con. That hope is what makes us speechless with wonder, what allows us to marvel at towering trees and twinkling lights and falling snow. It’s also what compels the boy to board the train under the cover of night and what moves us to sneak silently on to that journey.

“Believe”, one of the best Christmas songs ever, by perfect Josh Groban:

“Hot Chocolate”, “When Christmas Comes to Town”, and “The Polar Express”:

Released: 2004
Prod: Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Gary Goetzman, William Teitler
Dir: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Robert Zemeckis, William Broyles, Jr.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Eddie Deezen, Jimmy Bennett, Michael Jeter
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016