Believing in “The Polar Express”


The Polar Express holds a special place in my heart, ever since my aunt read it to me one Christmas.  It’s a wonderful children’s book.  Yet, for one reason or another, I never got around to watching the movie the whole way through.  This year, I put my foot down, set a reminder in my iPhone, and tuned into Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas to watch it.

As an adaptation, it obviously presents a different challenge than The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.  Those books were too long to fit completely into a movie’s typical running time.  The Polar Express is too short.  So, going into it, I knew the movie would have many additional scenes and would need to expand on the story beyond “a nameless boy visits the North Pole on Christmas Eve.”

Visually, this movie is PHENOMENAL.  It successfully captures the art style of Chris Van Allsburg, who wrote and illustrated the book.  The only big problem, which has brought up multiple times, is the character animation.  Their faces aren’t as expressive as they ought to be because of the limits of motion capture animation.  Although it does hurt the movie overall, you get used to it after a while.

Then we have the story and characters.  The movie begins with a subtle change from the book.  Instead of the boy ruminating about whether Santa’s real based on something his friend said, we see that he’s come to this conclusion on his own.  His parents wonder if this will be his last year believing, he’s collecting newspaper evidence in his room, and he tells his sister about his doubts instead of a friend telling him.

The book begins and ends with the question of belief in Santa Claus, while the middle focuses more on the journey and the amazing things that the children see. Movies generally provide some kind of problem that the protagonist needs to overcome. The problem in this movie fits the spirit of the book.  It’s a great adaptation decision.  I also like the little moment when the Polar Express passes a department store with a mechanical Santa, and the boy shakes his head.

Unfortunately, when the Polar Express arrived and the boy climbed aboard, that’s when I felt the film begin to drag.  Although I get that the screenwriters needed to add things to the plot, I wasn’t a fan of most of the additions.  I don’t know why, but I could feel this sense of padding throughout the film.  It felt like these scenes existed just to make the movie longer.  Moreover, The Polar Express didn’t need to be 100 minutes long.  Most Disney animated movies aren’t even that long.  I think it would’ve worked a lot better as a half-hour Christmas special, or even an hour.

Two scenes particularly bugged me: 1) the boy losing the girl’s ticket and 2) the boy and his friends getting lost in the North Pole.

First, the lead girl realizes that a lonely boy didn’t get his mug of hot chocolate, so she and the conductor go over to the next train car to give him one.  Then the lead boy notices the girl’s ticket on her seat and realizes that the conductor forgot to punch it.  So he takes the ticket, tries to cross over to the next train car to give it to them, and then the wind blows it out of his hands.

Why didn’t he just wait for them to come back?!?  There was absolutely no reason for him to leave the train car.  They came right back after delivering the hot chocolate.

Losing the ticket starts a chain reaction where it looks like the girl will get kicked off the train, the boy chases after her, and eventually finds out that the girl just got sent to work in the engine room.  So they get a front-row seat and a chance to help out when things go wrong on the train’s journey.  Therefore, the ticket scenes serves a purpose in the plot.  It’s just a weak way to get them from the train car to the engine room when the whole problem could have been so easily avoided.  I found it harder to get invested in the story as a result.

The second scene happens right after the train finally arrives in the North Pole.  The kids line up to meet Santa, and the boy and girl realize that the lonely boy, Billy, never left the train.  They decide to sneak back on board to convince Billy to come with them.  Unfortunately, the boy slips and accidentally hits something that separates the car from the rest of the train.  The car rolls away and they get lost in the city.

At this point, I’d gotten happily sucked back into the story, in awe over how good the North Pole looked, psyched that it was almost time for the scene where the boy meets Santa- and then groaned when I realized the kids had to face another long obstacle before they could get to the end of their journey.  Although I liked that they got to explore the North Pole and Santa’s workshop, I still felt like the sequence only existed to make the film longer.

(Gif found on GIPHY)

That said, the scenes where the kids tried to find their way back to the train introduced another positive change to the story.  The lead girl guides them based on the sound of sleigh bells- but she’s the only one who can hear them.  Eventually, Billy hears them too.  But the boy can’t.  Even after experiencing so many magical adventures, he can’t decide whether he truly believes in Santa or not. He wants to believe, but he’s afraid of being disappointed.  So it feels all the more triumphant when he finally declares that he believes, shakes the bell, and hears it ring.

For the record, I also love the song, “Hot Chocolate.”  It’s still padding, but unlike some of those other aforementioned scenes, it’s so much fun that I don’t care.  The song’s really catchy and the impossible choreography of the waiters is cool to watch.  Plus, the kids do drink delicious hot chocolate on the train, so it’s faithful to the book.

(Gif found on GIPHY)

Overall, The Polar Express makes a decent attempt to adapt a beautiful picture book, and while I think it’s flawed and doesn’t come close to the book, it’s worth watching once or twice at Christmas.  I will always believe in the book!