THE POLAR EXPRESS isnt just an astonishing achievement in animation, its also a rich feast for the eye, the mind, and even the spirit. It’s a glorious evocation of that most fragile, most beautiful aspect of the innocence of early life, the childlike wonder and whole-hearted ability to be swept away by magic. Im sure that there will be some who will waste no time in decrying the fact that it takes a firmly secular approach to the holiday season in which it is set, even as it celebrates the best of human nature, the part that we could and should take with us throughout the rest of the year. To them I reply with a rousing, Bah, humbug.
Set on Christmas Eve somewhere in the mid-20th century, it finds our unnamed hero at a tricky age, just old enough to let facts start getting in the way of believing in Santa Claus. Smug and yet jut a little disturbed by his new-found cynicism, he has sent no letter to Santa this year, nor taken no picture with the local department store stand-in. Worse, he not only made his sister put out the milk and cookies for the big guy, he has also started giving her doubts about his reality as well. No sooner does he fall asleep that night than hes awakened by the sound of a train roaring to a stop right outside his house, the eponymous Polar Express, sent to take him and a group of other kids similarly imperiled, on a trip to the North Pole before its too late.
The journey is rife with adventure, danger, and crackling imagination. Waiters perform an ersatz Busby Berkeley routine as they serve hot chocolate to the travelers while spinning like corkscrews and pouring the drink from pots into three different cups at once. There are vertigo-inducing roller coaster-like rides through icy wastes and through Santas workshops, not to mention a golden ticket with a penchant for wanderlust, and herds of both caribou and of elves. The animation process is worthy of a review all to itself. For more information, see the official web site. Suffice to say here that the aesthetic, a cross between Norman Rockwell and Mucha, achieves a heretofore unseen level of detail without rendering the action photographically, a faux pas that would surely have worked towards breaking the magic spell cast by the film. It keeps topping itself, from the boys individual eyelashes to the way his reflection is precisely distorted in the mirrored surface of the sleigh bell, to the dizzying, all encompassing movement as our heroes maneuver a veritable Everest of Christmas presents waiting to be loaded on Santas sleigh.
The sentiment, and theres plenty, is not forced, condescending, or wrapped in a mantle of soul-sucking saccharine. It speaks as much to kids who still believe as it does to grown-ups who want to recapture the warmth of the season, whether they know it or not going in. The trains conductor (voiced by Tom Hanks at his most avuncular) is starchy, efficient, and just a little intimidating. The boy and the little girl he befriends on the train face real dangers, though the girl, also never named, shows herself more than equal to the task of facing peril and conquering it, sometimes with the help of a mysterious hobo who is riding the rails with them. There are also delicate intrusions from the real world, one of the boys companions is a kid from the wrong side of the tracks for whom, as he puts it, Christmas has never worked out, and theres the obnoxious kid who is only too happy to let everyone else know how smart he is and how dumb they are. Its noteworthy, too, that these are real kids, not wise-cracking, preternaturally precocious tots.
THE POLAR EXPRESS is a timeless classic in the best sense. It stands up under repeated viewings and best of all, it provides the budding skeptics out there, and not so budding ones, perfectly logical explanations for how Santa takes care of all the children in the world in just one night, and it does it without taking away any of the magic.