Movie Review


The Polar Express movie poster

The Polar Express

Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Robert Zemekis
Principles: Tom Hanks, Michael Jeter, Peter Scolari and Nona Gaye
Rating: G

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMCom)—The Polar Express, based on Chris Van Allsburg’s beloved children’s book has come steaming into theatres to stake its claim as the Christmas movie of the year. Backed by the double-barreled talents of star Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemekis, can this big screen, feature-length version retain the simple charms and lessons of the original? The answer might hinge on how devoted you are to the book, as well as how you react to the film’s groundbreaking, but risky visual style. For me, The Polar Express succeeds where it matters the most—reaffirming that Christmas is something that lives in your heart and that we must at times have the faith of a child.

The Polar Express image
Hero Boy (voiced by Daryl Sabara), Hero Girl (voiced by Nona Gaye) and Lonely Boy (voiced by Jimmy Bennett) in The Polar Express. © Warner Bros.
The Polar Express is a technical marvel, employing a cutting-edge computer animation technique called “image capture” to bring the book’s characters and illustrations to life. Image capture involves recording the “performance” of real actors, who are equipped with multiple motion sensors, and streaming their actions and expressions into a computer. This “captured” performance is converted to 3D animation. This same technique was used to convert actor Andy Sirkis into the horrible Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films. Motion capture allowed Hanks to “play” five different roles, including the main character “Hero Boy” and Santa Claus himself. The risk is in using the technique that so effectively visualized the other-worldly Gollum to create realistic and likable human characters. Whether Express succeeds is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. 

What does succeed is the story’s message. Express is about a boy—maybe 8 or 9-years-old—who is never identified by name, but is called “Hero Boy” in the closing credits. Hero Boy no longer believes in Santa, and in a sense, has lost the wonder of Christmas he once felt.  All around him he sees evidence of falsehood, from the Santa hat just-visible in his father’s pocket, to obviously fake department store St. Nicks. As he lies awake on Christmas Eve, a magical train appears to whisk him and other children off to the North Pole where they will meet Santa. One of them will even receive “the first gift of Christmas.” Following his enchanted trip, and a special gift of a bell from Santa’s sleigh, the boy’s faith is renewed and the magic of Christmas lives on in his heart.

The Polar Express image
Santa Claus (Tom Hanks) and Hero Boy (voiced by Daryl Sabara) in The Polar Express. © Warner Bros.
This is the core-story of the book, and could be told neatly in 30 minutes. What the filmmakers have done is to add additional characters, each with a special role to play in helping us get to know Hero Boy better and in moving his renewed faith forward. Hero Boy himself has been re-imagined as a Scrooge-like doubter and his journey expanded to Dickensian proportions. 

Two of the added characters become teachers, or guides, on the boy’s journey. The Conductor, the ultimate insider, manages the business of the train with cool precision while dispensing wisdom to the children along the way. He has seen doubt before, and knowing Hero Boy desires proof, he confidently tells the boy, “Sometimes the things that are most real are the things you can’t see.” The other guide is a hobo who is an outsider, challenging the boy to look at things in new ways and perhaps even question the evidence of his own eyes. 

Between the Conductor and Hobo, the film mounts a surprisingly effective exploration of faith based on the heart and faith based on evidence. Interestingly. the boy is never expected to completely abandon the desire for proof, and in fact is given the sleigh bell as evidence of the miraculous. Does this make his faith any less real? One has to only think of the thousands who were moved and convinced by miracles in the Bible, to realize that perhaps The Polar Express’ un-named doubting boy could have been named Thomas.

The Polar Express image
The Hobo (Tom Hanks) and Hero Boy (voiced by Daryl Sabara) in The Polar Express. © Warner Bros.
Can something profound really be taught through a short, simple story? Of course! The greatest spiritual teacher of all time, Jesus, was also the greatest storyteller of all time. He spun simple tales like the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Mustard Seed to both captivate his listeners and touch their hearts more deeply and profoundly than they had ever been touched before. The Polar Express isn’t in the same league as those great parables, but it’s certainly worth the ride, and provides a perfect opportunity to revisit those parables, while leaving many nuggets of wisdom of its own along the track. 

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.

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