Christmas has a unique power over many of us. It’s the one time each year when we just might have a communal moment with all of the Christmases of our other years. I remember the year I got a guitar for Christmas, and the year I selfishly thought I hadn’t gotten enough gifts. In a way, they all stack up, and on this one special day, we have a chance to see them all dangling in front of us again.
Five years ago, I was a very different person. I was a first-year college student navigating through the “big switch” from one institution to a markedly different animal. If only I’d known how strange the transition from life as a college student to life as a graduate would be. . . I might have had a few words for myself.
In 2004, I remember first seeing an advertisement for The Polar Express. I’d never read the famous book the film would be based on, but I had an inkling that it’d be one I wanted to see. So, before Christmas rolled around that year, I took my 12-year old brother and set out to see the film.
The first theater we went to had sold out, so we, resolute and undeterred, set out to find another. On our second attempt, we were successful, and we sat down and watched the film together in a crowded theater.
The Polar Express is a ground-breaking film that marked the first time that “performance capture” had been used to create an entire animated feature film. Previously, the technique of putting sensors on an actor’s body to put their movements into a computer for digital recreation had been used to a lesser degree by filmmakers like Peter Jackson and George Lucas. However, this film marks one of the first times time that performance capture was used to this degree, allowing Tom Hanks to play 5 different characters with a remarkable degree of realism.
Additionally, The Polar Express marks Robert Zemeckis’ first experiment with performance capture, an experience that has proved to be a major turning point for him as an artist. Since 2004, Zemeckis has made two other films, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, both of which are animated films using performance capture.
With all this talk of matters of technicality and precedent, I don’t wish to make The Polar Express sound like it’s a history lesson of a film. It’s not.
The Polar Express is a magical movie, the kind that makes your heart swell, puts a big smile on your face, and makes you wish that you could be a child again. For a symbol, the story uses kids in that strange in-between of knowing that the world is bigger and more complicated than they’d imagined but wanting things to stay simple to tell a tale of faith. Not religious faith, or the belief that a specialized way of living is somehow more correct or appropriate than another, but the kind of faith that encourages, uplifts, and reminds one to look for the magic present in the everyday.
And it’s wonderfully exciting. The journey to the North Pole is one filled with danger and excitement. I still remember sitting in the theater as the train careened like a roller coaster, feeling like I was, in some weird way, on it myself. The best stuff in the movie, for my money, takes place when they get to their destination. This version of the North Pole is highly industrial, a corporation, if you will, with Santa Claus as a benevolent version of Bill Gates, albeit one without a voice like Kermit the Frog’s. The elves have terrific personalities, and the scene where the kids listen in on the decision process as to what exactly constitutes a spot on the “naughty” list just might be my favorite.
As I look back over the five years that have passed since that day, a lot has changed. I’ve grown older. My life is very different in certain ways and exactly the same in others. But every year, around Christmas, I put on The Polar Express and am reminded of the magnificent years of youth and the promise present in a moment. In this time of uncertainty and a markedly existential angst, a movie about a train bound for the top of the world on Christmas Eve goes a long way.