Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

The Polar Express

Posted by CinemaPsycho on November 16, 2004

Directed by Robert Zemeckis/Screenplay by William Broyles, Jr./based on the book by Chris van Allsburg/starring Tom Hanks, Peter Scolari, Nona Gaye, Eddie Deezen/Warner Bros-Castle Rock

A young boy boards a magical train that goes to the North Pole on Christmas Eve.

So last month I was sitting through Shark Tale. Kids’ movies are generally not my thing, but I have a young nephew and I occasionally like to treat him to a movie, as a good Uncle should. Plus it’s a good excuse to see movies that I probably would never watch under any other circumstances. Usually these movies are not that bad. But Shark Tale just made me nauseous. The constant pop-culture references, the lame little in-jokes (“Jessica Shrimpson”, ah ha ha that’s so hilarious), the trendy pop music on the soundtrack, most of all the bullshit “message” about how trying to transcend your station in life is a terrible thing. It all made me despair for the future – at least for the future of my moviegoing experiences with the kid, and all the godawful stuff I was going to have to sit through if Shark Tale was any indication of the direction these movies were taking.

I started thinking about all the animated movies (known back then as “cartoons”) that I used to like to watch when I was his age. Even the Disney movies had this timeless quality to them. The best of them will hold up until the end of time, and even “lesser efforts” like The Fox and the Hound would work perfectly today, just as is. They may not be my cup of tea as an adult, but they’re not supposed to be. They’re…you know, for kids! Makes me want to buy a hula hoop…

But today’s kids aren’t supposed to want something timeless. Their attention spans can’t take a leisurely paced journey through the animal kingdom, right? Hollywood has to clutter their family films up with all this horrible crap just to get them to pay attention. Or so they think. “When”, I asked myself as I suffered through that miserable revamp of “Car Wash”, “when is somebody going to make a good children’s movie like they used to make? One without all the in-jokes and pop-culture garbage, one that tells a simple story and does it well, without throwing in the kitchen sink? When will someone finally get that the Grinch is not a shamelessly overacting stand-up comic, and the Cat in the Hat is not a Jewish lady from an SNL sketch? When will they finally do it right, and make a movie that will still hold up years from now?”

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Polar Express is that movie. Thank God.

I say this while being completely unfamiliar with the children’s book the movie is based on. And quite honestly, I haven’t really liked a Zemeckis movie since Back to the Future III, so my expectations weren’t incredibly high. And I know, everybody’s nuts over Pixar, The Incredibles is a huge hit right now, every kid on the planet wants to see it 15 times. That’s fine. I just hope people don’t ignore this exquisitely crafted film, because The Polar Express is the closest thing to a children’s classic in years.

It’s very easy to be cynical about movies like this. Mostly because Hollywood makes it very easy. And yes, I could write several paragraphs about the budget, the boxoffice, the animation techniques. You know what? Who cares? What matters is what’s on the screen. And what’s on the screen is so damn good, that I really don’t care much about any of that other stuff. Save all that for the “Behind the Scenes” feature on the DVD if you’re interested. It’s the results that matter – and too many critics and audience members have lost sight of that.

So what’s it about? Well, you have this little boy who’s starting to lose his belief in Santa Claus. He’s just beginning to be aware of the evidence against the guy’s existence, and as we all know, that moment in a kid’s life really sucks. That’s the perfect time for The Polar Express, a magical train that seems to run on nonexistent tracks, to come along in front of his house, pick him up and take him and several others on an eventful ride to the North Pole to see the big guy up close and in person.

That’s pretty much the basic story. Sure, a lot of stuff happens along the way, but why ruin it for you by telling you about it? Santa would not approve.

The movie looks amazing. That’s a given these days. But more important is how the movie FEELS. It feels exactly like the kind of movie I was desperately wishing for during Shark Tale – an old-fashioned, heartwarming adventure tale. It’s like the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials with the modern technology of a Jurassic Park movie. Yet it has that timeless sensibility, so it feels like it could’ve been made at any time during the last century. You can’t just put a “November 2004” stamp on it and watch it become dated in 5 years. I expect there to be annual showings on TV around this time of year, right alongside It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story. I’m not saying it’s THAT good…but time will tell.

Zemeckis has been known to be a tad emotionally manipulative with his recent films, but here, it all feels right. Every laugh and every tear feels absolutely earned. You don’t feel like you’ve been put through the wringer or bludgeoned by sentiment, because the movie works exactly as it’s supposed to. You feel it because it’s done well, not because you’re being forced to. Or maybe you won’t – but honestly, if you haven’t teared up a little by the end, you are one cynical bastard. And that’s coming from a cynical bastard.

Sure, I thought it was a little bit eerie at first. The whole idea of children being taught to “believe” in something that defies logic, reason and all rational thought was a little off-putting to my sensibilities. But it’s a Santa Claus movie for christ’s sake. It’s a children’s fantasy. And it’s not like they don’t bring the man himself to center stage. These kids want proof and they get it. So it’s hard to argue with that one. This could be the best Santa-propaganda film ever made.

I’ve heard some complaints about the animation, how it doesn’t seem “real” and so forth. You know what? It’s animation. Very complicated animation, but still…it’s a cartoon. Get over it, people. You want realism, look out the window. Seriously.

I kind of enjoyed the fact that the movie isn’t chock-full of celebrity voices. Quick, who did the voice of Frosty the Snowman? I don’t know either, and I never really cared. What’s important is that the characters are brought to life, and these are done extremely well. I have to warn you though, if you’ve got something against Tom Hanks, you’re really going to dislike this movie, because he’s all over it, playing 5 different characters. I don’t think Hanks necessarily HAD to play so many characters, but one could argue that it adds to the dreamlike quality of the piece that all these male characters resemble the kid’s father (though I’m not saying it’s a dream, because it isn’t…I don’t think). I think you’ll be surprised by some of his work here though, particularly one major character. My favorite voice in the film has to be Eddie Deezen (1941) as the “know-it-all kid” – if you don’t know the name, you’ll know the voice. He’s dead-on perfect.

And yes, I have to admit there’s one little slip towards the end, where a certain veteran rock singer appears as a singing elf (no, it’s not Mick Jagger). But up until then, the Polar Express is refreshingly free of modern touches. No references to other movies or current events. No in-jokes for the parents. No pop remakes of ‘70’s songs on the soundtrack. I’m so sick to death of that stuff in these movies. It’s time to put an end to all that crap, starting now. It’s time for Hollywood to stop making so many references, and start making movies worth referencing again. This movie proves they can still do that. So no more excuses. If the movie’s GOOD, the adults will sit through it willingly with their kids and not complain.

If disposable stuff like Shark Tale is like a McDonald’s Happy Meal, The Polar Express is like a gourmet meal at a four-star restaurant. They’ve finally delivered excellence, let’s reward them by taking our kids, our nephews and nieces, and showing them what a great family movie should be. They shouldn’t have to settle for less.

And thank you, Robert Zemeckis and company. I’m glad you spent a ton of Time Warner’s money to get it right. I hope more filmmakers follow your lead. (I’m looking at you, Ron Howard) You know Mr. Z, you’re pretty good at this fantasy stuff. Maybe you should consider doing it more often.

Oh yeah, my nephew liked it a lot too. He wasn’t bored at all, and neither was I. See Hollywood…this is how you do it.

**** 4 stars. 11/16/04

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