Saturday, December 3, 2016

25 Days of Christmas: THE POLAR EXPRESS

Welcome to Day 3 of our 25 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS series, where we will be taking a look at holiday classics each day in the lead up to Christmas. Today, I'll be reviewing the 2004 animated Robert Zemeckis film, THE POLAR EXPRESS starring Tom Hanks as...well, mostly everyone.

Robert Zemeckis has had a very peculiar history in film. After a series of undeniable classics throughout the 80s, 90s, and even early 2000s, from Back to the Future to Forrest Gump to Cast Away. And then he, all of a sudden, takes an interest in a new experimental motion capture technology that he would use for a series of interesting, but somewhat hollow animated features. Films like Beowolf and Mars Needs Moms (albeit not a Zemeckis directed picture) ranged from interesting to kind of ugly. The Polar Express ranks among not only the more visually pleasing of these pictures, but probably among the better ones. The Polar Express is a movie that admittedly trades story sense for whimsy and imagination, but manages to strike a balance in that that's very delicate. It doesn't always swing its way, but more often than not, Zemeckis creates a beautiful world that I only want to spend more time in.

The film stars Daryl Sabara as the voice of a young boy who's lost his faith in Santa Clause and who has been selected as a passenger on a mystical train with one destination: the North Pole. There, he meets new friends and a mysterious conductor, voiced and motion-captured by Tom Hanks. The film chronicles the journey, filled with twists and turns, literal drops and scary puppets, and everything in between, all leading to a fateful encounter up north.

The story, based on a children's book, has often been accused of being extremely padded, and that wouldn't exactly be incorrect. The film likes deviating a lot from its main story, whether with backstories of other children on the train or with weird evil puppet train cars (a strange portion of the movie focuses on a car on the train filled with talking puppets; it's a bit tangential). Some of these come off as a bit more typical than others, but some manage to imbue the film with a kind of wonder that does characterize the kind of story it wants to tell. One of the more notable examples features a hobo character who lives on the train (also played by Tom Hanks). His nature is never fully explained and his intentions are equally mysterious, but Zemeckis manages to play him off more as a guardian angel than he does a real character. The conductor is treated much the same, though the conductor is given much more of a concrete personality as a tough but fair fatherly figure. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn't nearly as compelling. The kids are acted well enough (actually, exceptionally so for child actors), but their characters are very loosely defined, especially since none of them are named. The protagonist boy gets the most screen time, but he's not much more than your generic headstrong but good-natured kid.

What the film does do is make you feel invested in the journey as it takes you through some very memorable moments with some visually stunning animation to boot. While the tech in Mars Needs Moms looked...well...ugly, for lack of a better word, in the Polar Express, it's actually much smoother than it would later look. This might be due to a lack of real detail that ended up working in favor of the film. And the memorable moments of the movie are really something to behold. The North Pole is multilayered, complex, and beautiful. The final sequence of the film (featuring another Tom Hanks mo-capped/voiced role) is a satisfying conclusion to a journey with as many twists and turns as the railroad tracks themselves. By the end, it asks us to be willing to believe in things that might not seem possible. It's a story more about the sentiment than it is about the rich characters of deeper plot. And, at that, it does manage to succeed. It's probably not a movie for everyone, but I always enjoy watching it. I enjoy the sentimentality, I appreciate the optimism, and I love the wonder in the animation. Also, I really like Tom Hanks.

Tony's Score: 7/10

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