The Polar Express
At the beginning of a Seattle screening of The Polar Express, when the locomotive of the title arrived in cacophonous glory, it frightened a girl—probably four years old—near the front of the theatre. She launched from her seat and fled up the aisle, her flustered mother following along. That dazzling train must have been quite a shock for the little tyke, who was probably accustomed to watching cartoons on the family television.
But when she reached the back door, she could not bring herself to exit. She just wanted to keep her distance until she was sure the train wouldn't run her down. After the characters in the film settled in for their North Pole voyage, while dancing attendants served them hot chocolate, she escaped her mother's patient embrace and edged back down the aisle. She stopped right next to me and stood there for most of the movie, oblivious to the fact that she had become part of the spectacle for the rest of us. Her expression reminded me of the boy in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when he sees UFO lights in the front yard—hypnotized, enthralled, and delighted.
Based on an exquisite storybook by Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express comes to us from Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis has transported us to other times (Back to the Future); to exotic and remote destinations (Cast Away); and through groundbreaking advances in animation technology (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). In this film, he takes us to all three: a simpler time, a far-off and frozen place, and an animated exhibition that glows like a forest of illuminated Christmas trees and roars like … well … like a passing train.
Zemeckis inventively converts the simple storybook into a full-length feature without excessive plotting. The film feels more like a tour than a tale. It's as if we're peering into a world that is going on all the time somewhere else. We're introduced to a young boy just as the first frost of adolescent skepticism settles on his heart. On Christmas Eve, he bah-humbugs himself to bed after his World Book Encyclopedia informs him that the North Pole is "devoid of life." "He used to stay up all night waiting for Santa. Those days are over," sighs Mom. "The end of the magic," agrees Dad.
Just in time, and to the boy's amazement, a train arrives in front of his house, and he's invited aboard. Inside, he settles in with other young passengers—an array of similarly wide-eyed children—for a round-trip North Pole voyage. Along the way, they'll find their virtues and their faith tested in preparation for an encounter with Saint Nick himself.
Teenagers and jaded grownups might scoff at Express's old-fashioned sentimentality. But small children, and others who can surrender to such simple whimsy without becoming sarcastic, are likely to find themselves spellbound. We haven't seen a film so perfectly pitched for the very young (and the very young at heart) in years. Recalling classic holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, The Polar Express is utterly sincere in its storytelling, without a hint of irony or cynicism. (The only painful pop culture reference comes at the end, when we glimpse a singer who resembles a famously flamboyant rock star.)