The Polar Express (2004)

It’s probably a testament to just how jaded I am that my first thought when watching The Polar Express was “actually, this animation isn’t half bad”. The Polar Express is notorious for being the start of Robert Zemeckis’ turn to the dark side, where one of the most respected directors of genre cinema became a professional corporate necromancer.

Oh shit, I acknowledged its existence. Someone fetch my flail.

And The Polar Express was his first attempt at making an all CGI mocapped film and is infamous for being utterly, skin-crawlingly unsettling in its depiction of human characters. And yet, maybe it’s because I‘ve seen the absolute depths to which this accursed path would lead Zemeckis I found myself not minding the animation too much, for the most part at least. It just looks like a computer game cutscene. And, if I’m being scrupulously fair, there are even shots that I think are honest to God beautiful.

My, this review is trending rather positive isn’t it? I wonder if that will last.

So the movie first entered pre production in the nineties when Tom Hanks optioned the rights to The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg with the intention of making it into a live action film. But Zemeckis convinced him to do it in motion capture CGI, claiming that trying to do the story in live action would cost over a billion dollars. From this, we must assume that Robert Zemeckis is a filthy liar who will say or do whatever it takes to get to practice his perverse CGI occultry. How? How would it cost €1 billion dollars? A boy goes on a train to the North Pole and meets Santa Claus. That’s it. Do Santa movies typically cost the GDP of a developing nation?

This one shot cost more than the combined wealth of all the monarchs of Europe.

Short of cloning your own Santa Claus with magical powers I have no idea how Zemeckis got that figure or why anyone listened to him. But I digress.

Our story begins with our boy hero who is named *checks notes* “Hero Boy”.

There are plenty of movies that would benefit from losing a character or two. This unfunny comic relief character, that love interest that goes nowhere. But The Polar Express may be the first movie I can recall seeing that would genuinely work better if the PROTAGONIST was cut. Hero Boy is not a bad character. Hero Boy is NOT a character. He has one, trait, sort of; he isn’t sure whether or not he believes in Santa Claus. Now, if a magical Christmas Themed steam engine rolled up to my house on Christmas Eve offering to take me to Santa’s workshop, I think that would settle the matter for me but this kid’s still on the fence apparently.

Anyway, Hero Boy meets the conductor played by Tom Hanks.

Now, much has been made of how creepy and unsettling the Conductor is but here’s where I’m going to have to blow your minds. Are you ready? The problem isn’t the animation. The problem is Hanks’ performance.

Awwwwwww, Merry Christmas guys.
Been too long.

I’m serious though, this is really misjudged. Hanks is clearly going for a mercurial, Wonka-esque character. The problem is, Willy Wonka is actually really menacing, but we don’t care because, with the exception of the Buckets, all the people who he might endanger are complete shits. Hanks cycles through cold indifference, manic bonhomie and furious rage and I am scared for these kids. This is not the kind of behaviour I want to see from a man who abducts children in the dead of night for a journey on his magic train WHAT DID YOU JUST TYPE MOUSE ARE YOU TRYING TO GET SENT TO JAIL?

The Conductor offers Hero Boy a seat on the train and the boy, sensibly, refuses. The Conductor shrugs and says “suit yourself”and the train begins to pull away. The boy has a last minute change of heart and climbs aboard. On the train Hero Boy meets “Spirited Girl” because the cast of this movie reads like the roster of the Legion of Superheroes circa 1962. He also meets OH SWEET JESUS IN HEAVEN.

Is there anything creepier than adults playing children? This is Know-it-All Boy, voiced by Eddie Deezen and I have been damaged forever by having to endure him. Anyway, Hero Boy makes friends with Spirited Girl who is so gung-ho for Christmas the Ghost of Christmas Present would tell her to tone it down a notch.

Now, here is where my biggest problem with the movie rears its head. The Polar Express stops outside the house of another little boy named Billy. The Conductor offers Billy a seat on the train and the boy, sensibly, refuses. The Conductor shrugs and says “suit yourself”and the train begins to pull away. Billy has a last minute change of heart and chases after the train.

Now, did that sound at all familiar? Yeah, it’s pretty much a beat for beat repeat of how Hero Boy gets on the train. And Billy, unlike Hero Boy, actually has a defined personality. I mean, it’s kind of a downer, but he feels like a character in a way Hero Boy doesn’t. Hero Boy isn’t sure this whole Santa deal is on the up and up, but Billy is actually miserably depressed. He doesn’t feel this whole Christmas cheer everyone keeps going on about and worries that there’s something wrong with him. He’s genuinely a tragic figure. So my question is; why do we even need Hero Boy at all? Why not make the core relationship of the story the friendship between Spirited Girl and Billy? I guess they were going for a Spock/Kirk/McCoy thing where Hero Boy is the neutral centre between Billy’s Christmas blues and Spirited Girl’s bubbling holiday cheer but, and I say this with all due respect, Hero Boy is no James T. Kirk. He’s a charisma-less, sucking void.

Okay, Billy doesn’t want to sit with the other kids so the girl brings him a cup of hot chocolate. While she’s gone, Hero Boy notices that she left her ticket on her seat. He picks it up and the wind plucks it from his fingers and sucks it out the window. When the Conductor arrives to check tickets, the girl can’t give him hers so the Conductor says that she’ll have to come with him. And Know it All tells Hero Boy that the Conductor is going to throw her off the back of the fucking train.

Well, I mean, is it even a Christmas movie without some attempted child murder? Meanwhile, we see the ticket being blown through the mountains in a scene that just screams “how else are we supposed to justify the ticket mark-up for the 3D?” before being blown right back into the train. Hero Boy finds the ticket, and runs after friendly Mister Conductor before he can THROW THE SMALL GIRL FROM THE BACK OF THE TRAIN. He follows them onto the roof, trudging through the snow after the light from the Conductor’s lantern. Yes, I know it’s stupid, shut up, this is a part of the movie that I actually like.

Hero Boy comes across a Hobo, sitting at a campfire on the roof of a train and playing “Good King Wenceslas” on a hurdy gurdy. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric and creepy introduction to the character and the Hobo (also played by Hanks), is the one performance in this that I think really works. He’s spooky and mysterious and unsettling and he’s actually supposed to be. Which is nice. Unfortunately, the movie introduces a potentially awesome villain and then proceeds to do absolutely fuck all with him. (Personally, I’d have loved if he was secretly Krampus. We need more Krampus in our Christmas movies).

Hero Boy reaches the engine where he finds that Spirited Girl has been put in charge while the Conductor, the Engineer and the Fireman try to fix the train which is speeding out of control because we need another set-piece to justify the 3D.

Hero Boy gives the Conductor the girl’s ticket and he takes them back to their seats. You could cut out the entire sequence from Billy arriving on the the train to this moment and a first time viewer wouldn’t even notice. Nothing has changed, no characters’ arcs have been advanced. Not a good sign.

They arrive in the North Pole and the Conductor tells the kids that one of them will get the first Christmas gift of the season from Santa. Hero Boy and Spirited Girl go to the rear carriage to try to convince Billy to come along but he’s just not feeling it. Suddenly, the car gets detached from the rest of the train and goes hurtling through the streets of Santa’s company town because 3D is the future of cinema, damn the skeptics. The three kids now have to make their way through Santa’s toy factory, which consists of massive deserted spaces with all the life and cosiness of a cathedral on a bleak November night. Spirited Girl leads them as she can hear the sound of a bell ringing that Hero Boy can’t and eventually they come to the elf command centre. These are the scariest fucking elves outside of Warhammer 40k. I honestly cannot believe these were intended to be appealing.

Thing looks like a humanoid sphinx cat.

They talk in these shrill Noo Yawk accents that honestly sound like they were going for “Mafia flunkey” and they’re just…wrong. They just are.

The kids pass a treadmill with presents going by and Billy sees one with his name on it and chases after. This leads to the kids going down a loooooong slide just so you know you totally weren’t conned into schilling out extra money for a meaningless gimmick (God DAMN I’m glad 3D died. Again).

They’re dumped into a massive sack of toys where they also find Know it All, who snuck into the sack to get his presents early. The sack then gets scooped up by a massive airship and find themselves hanging hundreds of feet up in the air until they’re rescued by the elves who tell them they knew they were there the whole time while cackling like little goblins. They clearly are supposed to be unsettling. But…why? Why does Robert Zemeckis hate Christmas?

Everyone’s getting ready for the sleigh to take off, and the flying reindeer are gyrating through the air like hairy antlered eels. It’s unsettling as fuck, I tell you what. Cast loose by their hideous, unnatural contortions, a bell flies loose from the reindeer’s reins. Hero Boy can’t hear it at first, but then he shakes it again and he hears the bell because he finally believes.

You know, after having ridden a magical train to the North Pole, seen the magical city there, visited Santa’s Workshop, seen the literal elves and actually fucking flying reindeer. Quite a leap of faith there.

He looks up to see Santa Claus standing behind him.

He returns the bell to him, and Santa decides that he deserves the first gift of Christmas.

He doesn’t. Santa Claus is wrong.

***

Full of heart, humour, great characters and indelible songs while still managing to say something truly profound and even spiritually uplifting about the true meaning of Christmas, you really can’t go wrong with Muppet’s Christmas Carol.

Scoring

Animation: 07/20

Honestly a LOT better than I expected. Still manages to horrify here and there.

Leads: 06/20

I was sorely tempted to give this category a zero because he’s just such a NOTHING but then I remembered that I gave the kid from Mars Needs Moms a whopping three so here we are.

Villain: 08/20

The Hobo is actually pretty menacing and is introduced in a pretty effective scene but then he doesn’t really say or do anything for the rest of the film which is a bit of a flaw in your antagonist.

Supporting Characters: 03/20

I mean, are these even characters? Supporting talking props.

Music: 13/20

Alan Silvestri delivers some nice Christmassy vibes.

FINAL SCORE: 37%

NEXT UPDATE: That’s it for 2022 peeps. I’ll have my usual end of year wrap up and then I’ll see you all 12 January 2023.

NEXT TIME: Sure, Phase 4 has been pretty lacklustre but surely Thor can save us? Right? Right?!

23 comments

  1. Um…. not to be mean or anything, but did your version of the movie have something like 70% of it’s scenes cut? Or did childhood me hallucinate vast swathes of the movie? I mean, it’s one thing to not spend too much time on a movie you dislike, (and I haven’t seen this movie in at least eight years) but I’m pretty sure there are at least a couple of really good sequences. The frozen lake comes to mind, as does the Boy stopping the train so Billy can get on.

    Also, can you really call the Hobo a villain when every time he appears, he does something helpful? The only thing even mildly villainous about him is that he’s implied to be a ghost.

    And this has nothing to do with the rest of the post, but I could have sworn that the Boy’s name is Chris. Like, my whole family called him Chris. I wonder where that came from?

    Anyway, merry Christmas Mouse! Have a good rest of the year.

  2. I remember being a kid who really loved the book and hated how badly the film adapted it. The thing is, the film started being shoved down my generation’s collective throat every year, meaning that my hatred just grew more and more. This review was pretty cathartic to read, honestly.

    I’ve always thought the story could have become one of the all time great Christmas movies in the right hands instead of past-his-prime-Zemeckis. With a tighter script and either live action or traditional animation, we could have gotten an excellent expansion on the book and its themes instead of… whatever it is we got.

  3. Now, I’ve never seen it, but based on your description I’m pretty sure the film is a metaphor.

    A metaphor for bad filmmaking. It’s an ouroboros, forever eating it’s own tail.

    By the way, is there a reason to believe the Hobo is actually a designated villain? Because the way you describe him sounds more like a piece of unsettling scenery, rather than a participant in the plot. 🤔

  4. What are your thoughts on “When Christmas Comes to Town”? For years this was constantly on the radio, but I have now not heard it in years.

    Coincidently I have been planning on giving this film another shot this year.

  5. For reasons I cannot explain fully, Texas is obsessed with the entire Polar Express world. This book was required reading in Texas primary schools, a state on the same latitudes as North Africa (It would have made more sense, now that I’m an adult, to add this to our art curriculums, because that Caldecott medal was DESERVED). Snow is heavily not featured in our Christmases. We prefer to save that for February and make international news. Then my children had to read it. Then they had Polar Express themed school parties. There is a Polar Express in Palestine TX where for a whopping 400$ apiece you and your spawn can take a 2 hour train ride through the Texas backwoods, where there will very likely at least be menacing meth addicts sneering from the tree line. I somehow escaped ever having to watch the movie, as my children watched it every Christmas at school. In Texas. This is not to say that you should only have thematically weather appropriate stories but the entire effect is.. apparently like that movie. A lot of money and time for a mostly bizarre experience having nothing to do with anything.

  6. I sadly didn’t grow up with the book, and was 20 when the movie came out, so this one never held any charm for me. I do think the hobo is kinda fun. But even the better animated scenes, I can’t help but think they would be a lot more palatable with more stylized characters that can emote properly, not realistic mocap zombies.

    Since this is the last post before the holidays, a very merry Christmas to you and yours, Mouse. Mind the stirring, now. A little stirring in moderation is fine, but don’t overdo it.

  7. I admit to always having loved this movie, mostly, I will admit, out of nostalgia. And…The conductor is a character I like. Sorry.

  8. As someone who has never seen (and has no intention of ever watching) POLAR EXPRESS, I can still safely say that LOVE AND THUNDER was quite entertaining, that the Mighty Thor could do with a break from Mr Waititi, that Natalie Portman WITH MUSCLES is a Look I heartily endorse (that young woman deserves a thoroughly juicy Villain role as an apology for the various disservices the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre has done her), that I want a whole ‘Fantasy Urban’ series of stories set in Omnipotence City and that Mr Christian Bale’s villain is, to say the least, on-point.

    Remember children, casting a DC hero as a Marvel villain brings blessings, casting a Marvel hero as as DC hero brings down a Curse!

  9. Happy Holidays Mouse! I send my best wishes to you, to Mrs Mouse and the Mini Mouses too!

    As for the film, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it several times. I had the DVD and it was often on TV. But for the life of me I can’t remember anything more than “some kid gets in a magic train”. I can find nothing more damming for a film that it being just completely forgotten by a kid, the very demographic it means to charm.

  10. I personally never had a problem with the animation. I guess it’s because that’s what I expected 2004 motion-capture to look like.

    I’m a fan of this movie although I haven’t seen it in a while. I agree with you that the Hobo should have been a villain.

  11. Now for something completely different – Mouse, I recently stumbled onto the mention of a ‘Great Ireland’ as an element of Norse folklore associated with their explorations of the North Atlantic (It’s said to be six days sails from Old Ireland and in the general direction of Vinland – close enough to have dealing with peoples aligned with the so-called ‘Skraelings’: it’s residents are said to be loud, fringe-wearing and snow-white in their hair & skin).

    As you might imagine, this made me wonder what such a land ought to look like on the map (and, in the sort of setting where all myths are true, what it’s landscapes & residents ought to look like): I’m currently torn between the mental image of an Ireland swollen to the size of Great Britain and an Ireland larger than Great Britain to exactly the same degree as GB is larger than Ireland, so might I please ask if you have any suggestions on the matter?

    I’m almost equally torn as to what generation of Irish culture the locals ought to be modelled on – Pagan? Christian? Fairy Tale or High Legend? – but I’m stone-cold certain this land mass ought to be very like Ireland (though whether as a mirror image or simply an Ireland flipped upside down remains in question).

  12. I loved the book when I was a kid, but seeing the trailers for this movie didn’t really grab me back then. I do remember that when this movie came out, the first Spongebob Squarepants movie was in theaters. When we went to the movie theater one day in 2004, my dad and sister went to see Polar Express while I went to Spongebob by myself.

    Years later, when I finally got around to watching Polar Express, I knew my decision back then was correct.

  13. I’ve never hated this movie, but I also don’t like it. It seems like a bad idea from the beginning. I loved the book as a kid. It is perfect for what it is. It has an incredibly bare-bones plot and character. That’s fine, because it is a very short illustrated children’s book. Having anything more would take away from what’s there. I think you could certainly make a good animated short out of it.

    Of course, maybe someone could find a way to make a good feature out of it. I try not to say that any movie idea is impossible to do well. There are just some that I have no idea how they could be.

  14. I never saw Polar Express, so I’ll just comment early on the next one: I liked Thor: Love And Thunder, but I’m not sure I thought it was a good movie. Jarring shifts in tone all over the place. I can barely remember it in retrospect.

  15. I really liked the book so I made an attempt to watch this movie several years ago. My memory tells me I hated it: the animation, the new characters, the ticket clippings, the overuse of Hanks.

    I really don’t get how there are people who love this movie and watch it every year.

  16. Back when I was in high school, for some reason the school decided each class should be assigned a specific holiday movie and then for one day on the week that class would decorate a portion of the school with things indicative of that movie. My class got “Polar Express.”
    Anyway, not wanting be the social pariah for another year, I decided to join some of the other kids in a watch party where we would watch this and figure out themes for decorations. I sat through a movie that made me question the creative process and approval of modern Hollywood and introduced me to the Uncanny Valley, even if I didn’t know the term at the time. But, still not wanting to be a social pariah, I volunteered my old electric train set that belonged to my late uncle.
    Wouldn’t you know it? My train made it onto a special splash page for the year book. I was ignored by my peers once again.

    The moral of this story is, “Polar Express” sucks and Robert Zemeckis should be ashamed of himself.

    Anyway, Merry Christmas to you and your Mouse family!

  17. So an animated trio consisting of an emotionless character, a girl with way too much energy, and a pathetic little dweeb? Am I describing the Polar Express or Evangelion?

    1. People who criticize the characters in The Polar Express don’t seem to realize they’re basically archetypes. Most of them don’t even need to have names because we understand their functions in the plot and everything that we need to know about their personalities without them.

  18. Mouse, having watched CLASH OF THE TITANS (the Harryhausen version) last night and recalled your knowledge of & interest in Mythology, may I please ask if you would consider reviewing it at some point?

    One understands that this review could not possibly come in the near future, but should you be looking for a change of pace at some point then you could do worse than to give the various works of Mr Ray Harryhausen some attention (especially since there’s a lot of room to discuss how Ancient Myths adapt themselves to modern tastes, to go with the ample supply of Awesome Creature Feature Action).

  19. The thing that really killed the movie was all the pseudo religious stuff about belief. If I want religious Christmas stuff I just go to stuff about Jesus. Yes it was in the book too but that was way shorter.

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