Watch out, all you kids who don’t believe in Santa. This is not your choice to make. You will believe. Or else.
The Polar Express, directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on the beloved Christmas story by Chris Van Allsburg, is all about belief as imperative. It starts with a doubter, of course, introduced by a narrator (Tom Hanks, who voices some five characters here), this poor young soul is himself, on whom he looks back with some modicum of pity (or maybe it’s disbelief, that he ever disbelieved, but that’s altogether too circular). The protagonist, Hero Boy (voiced by Daryl Sabara) has seen a department store Santa or two, not to mention some newspaper articles, and suspects that it’s his own father who eats the cookies and delivers the presents. And so Hero Boy is determined to stay awake on Christmas Eve to discover the ruse.
His initial plan is to sneak from his bedroom to spy on the tree area downstairs, and in this instant of his resolve and dread, Polar Express conjures a perfect blend of childlike imaginings and digital magic, with a bit of pleasant tension as well. Having looked up the “North Pole” in his World Book encyclopedia (“stark, barren, devoid of life”), Hero Boy feigns sleep when his parents enter to look on him adoringly, smooth his hair, and sigh that he’s coming to “the end of the magic.” As they pause at his doorway, he sees their reflection in the unbearably shiny hub cab leaned against his wall, an image distorted and stunning, the mesmerizing product of hours on hours of rendering. In this compelling technical achievement, the artificial world turns more precise than you might have imagined possible, the real world briefly irrelevant, even as a measure of reality.
And with that, the moment is over. And Hero Boy, now asleep, is awakened with a start by a ferocious roar and whoosh, the very foundations of his home shuddering. Here, briefly, the film is a perfect blend of scary fun and digital movie magic: the bed shakes, the hub cab rattles, and the boy runs to his window to see the blinding light of a train, very loudly pulling up on his front lawn. It is, in a word, awesome. Hero Boy runs outside, donning his slippers and tearing his bathrobe pocket in his rush (one of those emphatically focused-on events that you know will prove important later), and hurtles down the stairs and out his front door toward the train, steaming, chugging, weirdly impatient. “All aboard,” instructs the conductor (Hanks again). It is, of course, the Polar Express, and the boy, despite his sensible misgivings at getting on a train to who knows where in the middle of the night, dressed in his flimsy pajamas, will make the only choice he can: he boards.
Here the ride begins, as the boy meets his fellow travelers, other kids with apparently shaky faith credentials, including Hero Girl, a.k.a., the Black Girl (Nona Gaye), the Nerdy White Boy (Eddie Deezen), and the Shy White Boy (Peter Scolari, who starred with Hanks way back in Bosom Buddies). Occasional mishaps enhance their hour-or-so’s worth of journey to Santa’s place (for that’s where they’re all headed, to be converted into true believers), including some wild-ridey roller-coaster effects, slipping and sliding on ice, and teetering on bridges designed for just such a teetery effect. Less thrilling than show-offy, these action sequences substitute speed and CGI wizardry for even the slightest emotional investment. Noting that his charges may be in need of some refreshment following one of these escapades, the conductor calls for hot chocolate, delivered by a pack of frenzied, faceless, extremely acrobatic waiters, who leap and dance all over the kids’ dining car tables, while the conductor sings some fantastical tune about the joys of hot chocolate. It’s all too much, to the point that it’s no longer entertaining, but rather, demanding.
As if the dancing waiters aren’t awful enough, Hero Boy is also haunted by a hobo-looking ghost (Hanks), who feeds him a cuppa hot something and challenges him to feats of derring-do atop the speeding train. Hero Boy goes along, because he’s sincerely wondering if this fellow has the key to the belief puzzle. This in itself is a little hard to believe, as the hobo tends literally to be whisked away by winds, being a ghost and all. Still, he does show up at moments when the train—this monstrous chuffing machine that so frequently seems to fly out of control—is most in need of rescue.
The idea of the machine extends throughout The Polar Express, from the train to the mechanical Santas that bother Hero Boy to the factory at the North Pole. Here the machine is everywhere and not a little menacing, as the elves (for whatever reasons, Yiddish-speaking) keep the world’s children monitored with a mammoth bank of tv screens, check off naughty and nice with a weary efficiency, and get around in pneumatic tubes. It’s a world that’s part Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and part Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, that is, just this side of sinister. Seeing all this, Hero Boy still wonders what it means; when his friends but not he can hear the sounds of jingle bells—worn by reindeer who prance and leap like bundles of barely contained and rather ferocious sinewy energy, aside from the reflecting surfaces, the scary-realest appearing objects on screen—Hero Boy is ready to give up. And then he meets The Man, red-suited and big-white-bearded, who informs him that the bells are “a wonderful symbol of Christmas, as am I.”
The question of Santa’s actual existence is thus left up in the air, so to speak. With his dip into philosophical roundaboutness, Santa does pretty neatly represent the problem of the film. With animation achieved by that strangest and most illogical of methods, rotoscoping (wherein actors’ performances are layered over with digital bits), The Polar Express is something of a big trick, a next step in Zemeckis’ ongoing project, remaking film as a medium, following the Back to the Futures and Forrest Gump, for examples. The fact that the human characters look so unreal, even as you know they were, at some earlier stage in the production process, flesh-and-blooded actors, raises the same sorts of questions about time, embodiment, and representation raised by these earlier films. Can questions about embodiment be resolved through abstraction? Can representation transport you through time? Though Santa might embody the problem of belief (as Hero Boy might also embody the problem of doubt), his visible disembodiment throws something of a wrench into the works.