Join us as we spend the next 25 days writing about some of our favourite Holiday TV specials! Today we look back at The Polar Express.
There are certain experiences that have a major impact on the way we see the world as children. If you had an active imagination like me, you might’ve also been bit by the “I desperately want to believe in Santa and Christmas magic” bug. As someone enthralled with fantasy from a young age, I clinged to the mystical atmosphere surrounding Santa and his fabled workshop throughout my childhood.
A major part of this interest came from having the original The Polar Express picture book read to me in elementary school. The thought of a kid just like me suddenly getting the chance to go on a magical adventure and meet the big guy himself was positively enthralling, and Chris Van Allsburg’s gorgeous illustrations sent my mind awhirl. More than anything, however, I became obsessed with getting my own magical sleigh bell, just like the boy in the book.
“Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are things we can’t see.”
In the original story, The Polar Express is the tale of a young boy who stays up all night waiting for Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve, and instead finds a huge train waiting outside his house that is chartered for the North Pole. The conductor beckons him to jump on, he enjoys a cozy ride to the Arctic with the other kids on the train, and they all eventually get to meet Santa Claus and his elves as honored guests.
The film adaptation puts a bit of a twist on things. The boy in the movie has grown skeptical as he’s gotten older, and the Polar Express stops by his home specifically because he’s on the verge of not believing in Santa anymore. Thus ensues the boy’s journey to believe again, as he gains new friends, encounters a Christmas ghost, and witnesses the glory of the North Pole with his very own eyes.
In retrospect, the movie goes to some silly places to stretch The Polar Express to feature film length (and to feature Tom Hanks as much as possible). Though the cynical Christmas ghost provides some of the most hauntingly magical scenes in the movie, his overall purpose is never really made clear. Entire plot threads are created from the flimsiest of premises; did the boy really have to hand-deliver the girl her ticket instead of waiting two minutes for her to return to her seat? And an abundance of random rollercoaster-like sequences are seemingly included just to appeal to kids who, well, like rollercoasters.
All of that said, it’s impossible to deny the darkly magical atmosphere that permeates every second of The Polar Express. It’s clear that Van Allsburg’s iconic illustrations fully informed the art direction; the warmth inside the train car contrasts perfectly with the ominous darkness of Christmas Eve night. Beholding the North Pole is spectacular when the children reach its center, and dreadful as they traverse the empty, dimly-lit city streets surrounding it. Perhaps most notable of all is just how intimidating the Polar Express still feels when the boy stands in front of it for the first time.
Though not the hallmark of holiday cinema by any means, The Polar Express does an outstanding job of translating the feel of the book to animation. Just as the first Harry Potter film enveloped children and adults alike in the magical world of wizardry, The Polar Express leaves me feeling just as wistful and affected as it had when it released 13 years ago. If you were ever a child who believed with all your heart, or have grown into an adult who wants to recapture that original wonder, there aren’t many films that deserve a recommendation more than this one.