With Christmas fast approaching, our standing Family Movie Night has been commandeered by holiday films. While Miles is watching some of these on his own (at, say, six in the morning, like this one), I wanted to make sure we took the time to sit down and enjoy some of these as a family. I’ll admit, “enjoy” is doing a bit of heavy lifting here, because there are a lot of Christmas movies that, despite having earned “classic” status by virtue of their mere existence, are objectively awful. Nevertheless, I can also admit that many of these movies are for children, and I thought I could afford some of them a reassessment, perhaps experiencing the movie’s charm a bit more vicariously through Miles.
This experiment started tonight with one of my least favorite Christmas movies of at least the last two decades — The Polar Express.
The movie itself remains a narrative mess; it has no story to tell aside from “kid takes a train to the North Pole,” and it pads its runtime out with a series of minor perils, all of which were seemingly devised to showcase the “cutting art, state of the edge” visual effects and (importantly) the advances in 3-D filmmaking that were relatively new in 2004 (and limited to IMAX screens). When I watched this movie during its initial release, I found the uncanny valley stew of mo-cap CG characters to be off-putting at best (and that’s ignoring the fact that Eddie Deezen plays a character that somehow manages to be one of the more annoying in his oeuvre, which is saying something) and deeply disturbing at worst (the “Hot Chocolate” number remains unfiltered nightmare fuel that would’ve sent me leaping from the train).
Saying that it looks even worse now isn’t particularly revelatory; this thing is almost 20 years old. And yet, like the titular train itself, it chugs along, reappearing every year to whisk kids off on an adventure with a twofold point. The first point, and one the audience is most likely to relate to, is “at the end of this thing, there are presents.” This is obviously of interest to children like Miles, whose entire holiday mission statement is “get to the day Santa comes.”
The other point, and one that I can’t believe is as effective, is “Christmas magic will exist as long as you believe in it.” The main character is beginning to lose that faith, and this journey is what ultimately restores it. Looking at this movie, especially now, I’m not sure how likely it is to restore anyone’s waning sense of Christmas spirit.
AND YET (because I’m not just going to spend this entire post laying into the movie — I had a mission statement here, too), Miles, a child who is currently entrenched in Christmas spirit, was completely invested in the proceedings throughout. It dazzled him. Narrative inconsistencies were lost on him (as, really, they should be). With no frame of reference for when the movie was made, the age of virtually prehistoric visuals didn’t even register. There was even a scene in the elves’ workshop, where Miles became CONVINCED he saw HIMSELF on a monitor, as though the elves were watching him in real-time to make sure he still belonged on the “good list” (he later said it “didn’t matter” if the elves saw him being bad, because “Santa didn’t see”).
Ultimately, I think my assumption going in was proven true — the movie must be watched through the eyes of a child for an optimal experience.
One more note about the visuals: YES, they are old and didn’t look that great in 2004, BUT they are consistent, and manage to lend themselves, however inadvertently, to a storybook-style that, if I flex my brain enough, sort of works.
At least, it works until that AWFUL Steven Tyler elf shows up. Forgot about THAT freakshow, didn’t you?