Tom Hanks Project – “The Polar Express” Review

26 Jul

the-polar-express-movie-poster-2004-1020193993This may be one of my more conflicted Tom Hanks Project reviews, friends. The problem is — before this latest viewing of Robert Zemeckis*’ The Polar Express, this was a film that I told myself I loved. I first watched it** with my family back when it came out in 2004, because the story of The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg was a family favorite and held with it special Christmas magic. I watched it again in 3D with my dad and brother years later, and all of the excitement of the film and pleasure it brought my dad was what I remembered of it. So I felt pretty confident*** in sharing it with Zack.

*The guy directed Forrest Gump, Cast Away and the Back to the Future movies. Then this.

**This was my first viewing. And last. 

***I think at some point you were confident, but the day before we watched, I said “So…I’ve seen that dancing hot chocolate scene and that was terrible. Am I gonna like this at all?” and you said “Oh, you’re going to hate it.” Correct.

polarexpress1_HRESFirst, let me explain the premise. The book is a very sweet story all about growing up and believing in magic, which I very much do in many ways. We follow a boy, who has recently been told by a friend that Santa doesn’t exist, as he travels on an engine with lots of other children to the North Pole, for the giving of the first gift of Christmas. The boy is selected to make the first choice, and he asks for a silver bell from Santa’s sleigh. He is gifted the bell, puts it in his pocket — only to find on the train ride home that it’s fallen through a hole in the pocket. See, if the movie just stuck to this story I think it could have worked. POLAR_BELIEVE6

When he awakes to Christmas morning, his sister finds the box with the silver bell inside, and the boy and his sister enjoy the sound, while the parents can’t hear it because they no longer believe in the magic of it. As a child, “Santa” brought me a silver bell just like the one in the story, so this story has always held a very special meaning to me. To me, the original story is all about choosing to find the wonder in everyday life — to look for the magic that’s out there.

In the movie version, in order to make a Caldecott-winning 32-page book into an hour-and-40-minute movie, they stretch* out the drama significantly. There are many close calls where the train’s brakes go out, it goes over ice, the boy has to pass dangerously between cars and track down a lost train ticket — it’s basically like a 90 minute roller coaster** ride.

*Nothing they added made the movie more interesting. The little subplots about a girl’s ticket flying away or the train sliding on the tracks never felt like threats. Who cares if the girl did lose her ticket? She’s on a magic train. Do we really ever think Conductor Hanks is going to throw her off? We sure don’t.

**Seriously, if this movie had been even slightly more popular (and it did gross $300 Million + worldwide, it could have easily been made into a Disney park ride. Oh, what do you know, it is an attraction at Sea World. 


On top of that, there is a definite uncanny valley effect because of the style of animation used for the film. It was groundbreaking* at the time, and it certainly is interesting, but there’s something about the scene where animated waiters tap dance on tables that’s just weird! Like, am I supposed to be impressed by tap-dancing cartoons? You can make them tap as fast as you want, IT’S A CARTOON**

*The motion capture looks pretty cool I guess and they certainly spent a lot on it, with the film’s $165 million budget. 

**Yeah, the movement reminded me of the Tupac hologram. Unnatural, a little off-putting and the obvious notion that no one has bones. 



Plus, the voice casting was TOTALLY wrong for so many of the characters. There’s a grown man (Eddie Deezen — IMDB him* and tell me you won’t know where I’m going with this) playing an obnoxious know-it-all boy, a grown woman playing the hero girl, and for some reason Peter Scolari** is credited as the lonely boy named Billy???? I don’t think he voiced him, I’m almost sure of that — so maybe he just wore the full body suit and did Billy’s no-bones run that we laughed at so many times? Whatever the reason, this casting just doesn’t make sense, and the whole thing felt a little too eerie and forced this go-around.

*I made the side by side above. I couldn’t stand this “kid” and fully agree that having all adults playing the children was a mistake. 

**Not the Bosom Buddies reunion we were hoping for. 

Laugh Out Loud: Caitlin: 21 Zack: 8 It is truly difficult to say when our laughs were being caused genuinely by the movie, or by each other for this category. I tried to differentiate, but often my giggles came from Zack’s reaction to a plebeian joke or sickeningly sweet song. I laughed more at Philadelphia. A movie where a guy dies of AIDS. I eye-rolled more than I laughed. 

Comedy: Zack: 1.5 Caitlin: 2.0 Hanks as the angel/hobo guy was the only real humor I got from this film. God, I didn’t laugh him at all. I really didn’t enjoy that character. I was laughing *at* the movie more than with it and I still barely laughed. 


Romantic Interest: Caitlin: N/A Zack: N/A I mean, are we supposed to believe the “love interest” was the unnamed black girl and the unnamed protagonist boy? Because…no. No love here. 

Eye Cover/Crying: Both: Zero  I was feeling nostalgic while we watched this film, and just sort of generally emotionally unstable from exhaustion, so I felt myself get these swells in my chest during certain parts of the film to where I thought I might actually cry — much less from the film itself, and much more for the meaning of the film to me in the moment of watching it. But I was far too embarrassed to cry at this goober of a film so I held it inside. I felt none of the feels. I was in no way invested in this movie.

hanks motion

Hanks: Caitlin: 8.5 Zack: 4 If you had asked me before I saw this film, I’d say Hanks as Santa Clause would be the most perfect casting call in the history of mankind. Someone completely likable, a little mischievous, kind and full of wisdom? Sounds like our guy. But with the weird usage of voice alteration software, it just ends up being disturbing. I do love Hanks as the train conductor — I think between that, Santa, the bum/angel and the kid’s dad, I prefer the conductor role. He plays the train conductor as trustworthy, a little uptight but with just enough flexibility to be fun. I find the character comforting, and I think Hanks really settles into him best. One thing that makes Hanks special is his ability to take what would otherwise be a bad movie and make it decent and takes good movies and make them great. This is a pretty bad movie and Hanks doesn’t do much to save it. I didn’t like any of his characters and there were a lot. I found his homeless ghost to be silly, his conductor to be too much of a tight ass to care for and his Santa to be lacking. He didn’t make it worse. He was fine, but any Alec Baldwin type could have done it instead and I would have (not) enjoyed it just as much. 

Movie: Caitlin: 7 Zack: 4 Upon this re-watch, I’ve decided this ranks somewhere in the neighborhood of Joe Vs. The Volcano for me. Less confusing than Joe, but similarly unsettling. There are just way too many Christmas movies that are far, far better. I suspect I’d struggle to get Zack to watch again, but I’ll still enjoy the ritual if my dad wants to watch with me. I think it would have worked better as a short. A 25 to 40 minute holiday movie that just stuck to what happens in the book. All the tacked on stories made it feel unbearably long and makes for a sluggish watch. Honestly, even then I would have found it just OK. They never seemed to find the right tone and I didn’t care for any of the characters. The kid was a nothing, the conductor was an uptight dick, his friends on the train were either obnoxious know it all’s or sheep and even Santa was nothing special. As Caitlin said, she’ll have to watch this with her family without me if she’s to watch it again. It’s one of only a couple Hanks movies we haven’t bought and I’m happy about that. 


3 Responses to “Tom Hanks Project – “The Polar Express” Review”

  1. tapeparade September 18, 2015 at 1:06 am #

    Totally understand Caitlin laughing at Zack’s reactions because I was actually laughing out loud reading some of your quotes in this film! I watched this when I was about 15 whilst babysitting and maybe I was preoccupied with doing my job (well done, teenage me, if that was the case) but I don’t remember findng it awful, just a little mind-numbingly schmaltzy in the way a lot of Christmas films are. Although of course by Tom Hanks standards it’s completely terrible.

  2. tapeparade September 18, 2015 at 1:06 am #

    Ugh I meant review, not film… obviously


  1. Introduction to The Tom Hanks Project | rockloveaustin - November 17, 2015

    […] The Polar Express – 2004 | Zack: 4 Caitlin: 7 […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: