I'm not sure what made me think of this book all of a sudden. But I'm pretty sure it was the hot chocolate I was making for myself, which reminded me of the "cocoa thick as melted chocolate bars" that the young boy drank while on his way to the North Pole.

This was one of my favorite Christmas stories to listen to when I was a child. By the time I got the book as a present, I was beyond the point of believing in elves and Santa Claus. But The Polar Express is one of those books that make you believe, if only for the length of the story.

Written in the first person and in the past tense, the story has the nostalgic feel of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. The young unnamed boy recounts one Christmas Eve, when he was sitting awake listening for the sound of sleigh bells. Instead, he heard the whistling of a train. After stepping outside, he saw a train stopped outside his house, waiting for him. This was The Polar Express, and it was taking him and hundreds of other children to the North Pole, for this Christmas' opening ceremonies.

The young boy is chosen to recieve the first gift of Christmas. Knowing he could choose anything he wants, he asks only for a bell from a reindeer's harness. Unfortunately, on the train ride home, the boy realizes the bell has dropped out of a hole in his housecoat pocket.

The next morning, a small unmarked package was found under the tree. Inside is the bell, and a small note from old Santa himself explaining that he found it on the seat of his sleigh.

But the boy's parents are deaf to the bell's beautiful music. He recounts how as the years went by less and less of his schoolmates could hear it's sweet sound. But the bell has always sounded true to him, and to all those who truly believe.

An inspiring and visually stunning book. One that I will read to my children one day.

The Book

The Polar Express is a timeless classic. Man, is that ever a cliché? But in this case it is true. The author would love the e2 writeup Node for the ages, for he created a book that is vague on the time period - it was published in 1985 but it could be taking place in 1955 or 1995 - and has been loved a generation of children and probably will be loved for many more.

Chris Van Allsburg was truly in touch with the spirit of children - more specifically, the Christmas spirit of children - when he crafted this wonderful book. I mean, it has a steam engine train (my son loves 'em!), snow, a snowman, hot chocolate, magic, and of course Santa Claus and everything that comes with him (elves, the North Pole, toys, etc.) He created the perfect holiday magical journey straight out of almost any child's dreams.

And to boot, Van Allsburg also illustrated the Polar Express, filling its pages with beautiful paintings that fit nicely with the textual narrative. The softness but detail of them create a dreamy but realistic atmosphere perfect for a Christmastime journey into a world of magic and wonder.

Unfortunately I cannot say things like "I remember it as a child" and "my mom read it to us every Christmas" because for some reason we never had this book. But I have it now and enjoy reading it to my son - and he enjoys hearing it - and I am sure that when my twin babies are old enough they'll love it, too. Any family that celebrates Christmas in some way should add this book to their collection. And maybe even if they don't.

The Movie

First of all, let's forgo any notion of doing a "how closely the movie followed the book" discussion. When you're blowing up a children's book into a 99 minute motion picture obviously that conversation is pointless. Some dialogue directly from the book was kept, which was nice, but lots more content had to be added but it still kept in the spirit of the book - more or less. The sequence of events in the book were kept intact but more events were added.

Oh wait, didn't I just say talking about that stuff was pointless? Sorry.

The biggest conversation about the movie version, at least amongst adults, is the CGI. It is completely computer animated, as is most animated movies these days (sadly), and it had arguably the most advanced photorealism at the time of its release in late 2004. Tom Hanks, without whom we probably wouldn't have even had the movie version, was a big part of the production, not only providing voices of several of the characters, including Santa Claus, The Conductor, and the Narrator (and adult version of the unnamed "Hero Boy"), but he also served as a producer of the film. The DVD's special features show Hanks donning electrodes all over his body so that the animators could use motion capture to reproduce his movements with supreme accuracy in the CGI. In a way, he was more than just a voice, you could argue that he was literally in the movie, as the Conductor, the masterly hole-puncher, actually looked like him. This is actually commonplace nowadays when actors lend voices to CGI motion pictures, even when the characters are anthropomorphic creatures.

The movie was good overall. Along with the book, it's a good DVD to have in your collection, even if you don't have children. I'm an adult and I love it. Of course, I am a Christmas freak. I still watch the Charlie Brown special every year.

The addition of the "Hero Girl" (not a lot of characters in this have actual names do they?), the sweet, African-American child more or less the age of the boy, was a good move, providing a nice companion to our central character. Her character was actually almost more developed than the main one, her childlike optimism and grinning wonder at the whole thing making her often more interesting that the Hero Boy who, let's face it, spent a great deal of the movie brooding, which is mostly because of his Santa Claus agnosticism, which is the primary reason the "PoleEx" makes a trip to his house. I guess a rail trip to the North Pole and Santa's workshop is about as good of a proof that you're going to get. But anyway, she was a good yin to his yang, let's say. However, Billy, one of the only named characters, for whom Christmas "just doesn't work out for," puts off that balance by brooding even more than H.B.

The only other child worth mentioning is "Know-it-All Boy" (again, no name). Ah, didn't we all know a kid exactly like that back in school? He knew exactly what model engine the train had and the origins of hot chocolate and, very loudly, let everybody know. He was filled with more answers than questions, the opposite of HB, who seemed to question almost everything.

Despite my positive review overall, I had a few problems with this movie. One of the major.

First, the minor annoyances. During a ticket-flying sequence I will mention later, a bum is depicted sleeping underneath the train. It is unclear as to whether or not this is the "ghost bum" that is prominently featured later, on top of the train (also voiced by and resembling Hanks). And the underneath-the-train bum is not featured again.

Another minor thing; Hero Boy's mother appears pregnant. When she is depicted, her face obscured like the Dad (also voiced by Hanks), her dress (or whatever that thing is she's wearing) looks like maternity wear. Either she's got a big belly under there or it's a weird garment that just fans out like that. Yet the narrator mentions no impending sibling and no other sibling besides his sister, Sally, in the book or the movie, and since he is an adult when he is narrating, obviously the birth would have happened by then. So from this I derive three conclusions: the mother wasn't pregnant and has a pot belly, she's not pregnant and she likes wearing maternity clothes, or she was and miscarries after the boy's North Pole trip. Or there's a fourth possibility, that I am crazy and she neither was pregnant or looked pregnant!

OK now the major problems.

I would check out Roger Ebert's review of the movie for further reading. He makes some interesting points about Santa Claus and his North Pole operation and the weird way the mob of elves run the place and I'm not going to spend time repeating them here. However, I will expand on his opinion of how realistic the CGI is except for a few annoying problems. In particular, the characters' mouths. There was something just wrong with them. Ebert couldn't put his finger on what. But I think I have an idea.

My biggest disappointment was, in my opinion, an egregious error on the part of the animators. Something very obvious was missing and I do not know how it was missed during post production or at any stage. "The weather outside is frightful," as the famous Christmas carol goes, in this movie. Christmas snow covers every landscape in the flick. It is cold. ESPECIALLY at the North Pole. Yet not once, not once, does the breath of any of the characters condense into white puffs in the cold air when they are outside. It took away a great deal of realism from them that they could have otherwise had. Sadly, to me, it made them walking dead, holiday zombies, because it made it look like they weren't breathing. Living beings breathe, and these characters weren't doing that. They sure moved realistically and looked real, but without the breath of life they were just animated bodies controlled by a necromancer with a computer mouse.

So, so disappointing. The condensed breath was such a blown opportunity to "breath more life" into the characters.

Another part of this equation is the concept of "The Uncanny Valley." In 1970 Japanese roboticist and scientist Masahiro Mori published a book called "Bukimi No Tani," or, "The Uncanny Valley." He hypothesized that as robots look more human, their imperfections will make them look eerie. In essence, the closer to looking human they are, the more we zero in on their flaws and become repulsed by them. This concept also applies today to CGI movies and video games. The humans in this flick are so close to real that we zero in on imperfections, indeed notice that their mouths aren't quite right and things like their breath not condensing. And it does actually make them look quite eerie.

This leads me to a bit of a sidebar, a question I've often asked myself when watching such realistic CGI films like this and Cars, for example: once you achieve total photorealism, what's the point of having a CGI cartoon as opposed to just live action? The answer to this question is in the Polar Express movie. And this answer is a wonderful scene where Hero Girl's ticket goes for an accidental journey outside the train and into the cold winter's night, a sequence that, in one fluid shot, brings it floating along in a running herd of wolves, underneath the train, and flying through the sky - high in the sky - once it is caught in the beak of a bald eagle and then fed to one of her babies, who in turn doesn't like its taste and spits it back out. That would be a difficult - if not impossible - shot indeed for a real camera in a real setting. Props to director Robert Zemeckis for that shot, and every other shot for that matter, as it was expertly directed all around. The hot chocolate dance and song sequence also deserves a mention.

Speaking of that, there are a few good songs from the movie, and they have quickly become part of our Christmas carol vernacular. In addition to that "Hot Choco-lot!" song sung by Tom Hanks, you have the beautifully haunting "Believe" - sung by Josh Grobin - from the closing credits, "When Christmas Comes to Town" sung by Billy and Hero Girl - Matthew Hall and Meagan Moore (when not singing those characters were voiced by Peter Scolari and Nona Gaye) - and "Rockin' On Top of the World," a rousing song sung by Stephen Tyler, or, the elf at the end of the movie that looks just like him.

All in all, like I said, it is a good movie, even with the flaws I mentioned. Your kids should love it and the younger ones probably won't be bothered by those flaws. It's a great DVD to pop in at Christmastime while eating some Christmas cookies and perhaps drinking some hot chocolate. Whip out the book, too, at those dark, winter bedtimes.

The Polar Express
Released (US): Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Running time: 99 minutes
Writers: Chris Van Allsburg (book); Robert Zemeckis (screenplay)
Cast: Tom Hanks (Hero Boy, Narrator, The Conductor, Santa Claus, Hobo, Hero Boy's Dad); Eddie Deezen (Know-It-All); Nona Gaye (Hero Girl); Peter Scolari (Lonley Boy/Billy); Leslie Zemeckis (sister Sarah, Hero Boy's mother)

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