Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Seeing is Believing

The Polar Express
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Tom Hanks, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Michael Jeter
Released: November 10, 2004
Viewed in theaters: December 23, 2004

Oscar nominations:
Best Sound Mixing (lost to Ray)
Best Sound Editing (lost to The Incredibles)
Best Original Song - "Believe" written by Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri (lost to The Motorcycle Diaries for "Al Otro Lado Del Rio" written by Jorge Drexler)

I remember reading this book by Chris Van Allsburg around the Christmas season when I was younger and loved looking at the beautiful illustrations. This book was so popular that one year my brother and I (and I think our friends also received the same things from their parents) each got a sleigh bell. As you remember from the story, if you can hear a sleigh bell from Santa' sleigh, then that means you believe in Santa. Well, of course anyone can hear a bell....unless you are deaf, so that would be a very cruel gift to give a deaf child! I'm sure I was very proud I could hear my bell! I haven't read or looked at in years, but I'm sure my parents still have it somewhere in their house. I've refreshed my memory by looking at it on since it lets you look at a few of the pages inside the book. The movie does a very good job of creating the same color palette the book uses and it's like the story coming to life. Since the book is only 32 pages, you know they embellished to add length to the movie. Since I haven't read the book in so long, I'm not totally sure what was added, but I have my guesses.

Tom Hanks voices multiple characters in the movie, just changing his voice slightly so each character has their own sound. He voices the conductor, Santa Claus, the hobo ghost (or it is a ghost hobo?), the boy's father, and the main character as a grown up narrating the story. We never learn his name (IMDb has him listed as "Hero Boy" in the credits) but we learn he is having doubts about Santa Claus which is why he is picked up by the Polar Express which stops right in front of his home on Christmas Eve. I would be scared s***less if some huge, rumbling freight train pulled up right in front of my house! Miraculously, the boy's parents or younger sister don't seem affected by the train! He is hesitant to board the train when the conductor invites him on and the train leaves without him and he runs after it at the last minute and boards. His was the second to last house the train stopped at. The last stop is for a boy named Billy, a couple years younger than the narrator, who also hesitates to board (I guess these kids were all taught about Stranger Danger!), but decides he wants to get on when the Polar Express starts chugging along again. He sits alone in the train car connected behind the one all the kids are in.

Even though the train has many children riding it on the way to the North Pole, there are only a few children that the film focuses on. Besides the main character and Billy, there is an African-American girl in a pink nightgown (I should point out that all the children are in their pajamas and robes -which hardly seems to be proper Arctic attire if you ask me!) who befriends the narrator and a really annoying nerdy, know-it-all-kid who has one of those grating voices. I would have loved to throw him off the train! I don't remember if they were in the book (I don't even remember if Billy was in the book - I really need to read it again!), but I'm guessing they were added for the movie.

There's a scene in the book where the children are served hot chocolate (I know this for a fact because I saw a picture of it on Amazon!) This scene is also in the movie, but there's this really weird song and dance that doesn't quite look right. It looks like they filmed the children in the train and that looks fine and normal, but then when they add the dancing wait staff and their hot chocolate machine, it looks like they were sloppily pasted on the "normal" photo. It just looks very jarring to me and the waiters are doing these awkward flips that don't look natural at all....even for a computer animated movie. The song is pretty bad too, if you want to call it a song. I do love the song called "Believe" at the end credits that Josh Groban sings. Very beautiful Christmas song. I wasn't familiar with the song that the three kids sing when they're outside the train looking at the stars.

Having a ticket is a very big deal when one boards the Polar Express so when the young girl goes into the next car with the assistance of the conductor to give Billy a cup of hot chocolate, our main character sees that she has left her ticket on her seat. Instead of hanging on to it and keeping it safe for her until she returns, he decides he needs to return it to her right that minute. Yes, I realize this scene is here to fill out the movie more, but the rational part of me doesn't understand it. While trying to cross the cars, the blowing wind whips the ticket out of his hand and it goes on a little adventure through the snowy woods. At one point, a bird catches it and tries to feed it to her babies. Um, I'm pretty sure birds know that paper isn't food! However, the ticket makes its way back. This whole thing would have been avoided if the dang kid had just kept the ticket in a safe place! But, nooo!

There's also a subplot with a hobo living on top of the train who's really a ghost. I'm pretty sure he's not in the book. The kid is up there with him for a good ten to fifteen minutes in nothing but his robe and slippers...he's not even wearing a hat or mittens. One would think he would get frost bite, or at the very least, be shivering, but nope! He seems to be just fine. I guess one doesn't get cold when one is a computer animated character!

If I were a little kid and saw this movie, I think I would have reservations about boarding the Polar Express. That train is a death trap! It nearly crashes several times while going down steep inclines, it nearly falls into cracking ice, the main character almost gets killed when he's on top of the train with the hobo and they're skiing along the cars and nearly smash into a tunnel...and don't get me started when they get to the North Pole, another death trap destination! The main character, the girl, and Billy get separated from the group when they get back on the train and that train car separates from the others. They end up on a swiveling platform that leads to different tunnels, but each tunnel is separated by a bridge over a deep chasm where you will certainly fall to your death if you fall!  There is a huge, swirling slide that actually looks like a lot of fun, but you're moving so fast you're getting lots of g-forces so that could kill you if you get out of control and crash. There are a lot of ways one could die in this movie! Oh, and let's not forget when they're in the air blimp controlled by the elves and nearly crash in that!

I love how the elf to kid ratio is like 1000 to 1. When Santa Claus makes his big appearance, all the elves cheer and applaud and act like he's some big rock star even though they see him every other day of the year! If I were one of those kids, I would have been pissed at the elves! They're standing one on top of the other and nobody can see over them. I'd be like, Hey, let me get a look at Mr. C.; you guys get to see him ALL THE TIME BECAUSE YOU LIVE HERE! But of course, Santa comes over to the main character and the other kids and greets them personally and our protagonist is chosen to be given the first gift of Christmas. Which is a sleigh bell he loses because there's a hole in his robe pocket. If I remember right, this was part of the book. Luckily, Santa knows where he lives. Although Santa's big red bag is heaping with presents, it certainly didn't look like it was enough presents for all the kids of the world.

The Steven Tyler as a rocking elf was totally unnecessary and dated the movie, though I suppose some people would consider Aerosmith timeless. And it would make sense Steven Tyler is an elf since his daughter is the elfin princess, haha! I thought the scene where the elves and kids are singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" was really cute.

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