The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



Animated film captures the soul of Christmas

Annie Rohrs | Monday, November 22, 2004

Anyone who has read the book on which “The Polar Express” is based should have high expectations for a film trying to re-create the magical illustrations that have made Chris Van Allsburg’s book into a classic Christmas story. Director Robert Zemeckis succeeds in the task, and viewers who know the story, as well as those who don’t, will be very impressed with the quality of visual imagery, which captures all of the actual illustrations from the book. It also adds breath-taking visual sequences that mimic reality while still imparting a feeling of fantasy.The movie begins with the opening line of the book, as the main character, a young boy beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus, lies in bed on Christmas Eve, waiting to hear the jingle of sleigh bells on the roof. He drifts off to sleep and is woken up by the sounds of a train fast-approaching his front yard. Confused but intrigued, the boy jumps onboard the train after the conductor, one of the many characters based on Tom Hanks’ features and sporting his voice, quickly explains the destination of the train.The young boy finds a friend in a girl already on the train, who has a quiet confidence in Santa and the wonders of Christmas. The two then befriend a lonely young boy from the wrong side of the tracks who’s never had a real Christmas. These three, along with a know-it-all who’s a little too self-absorbed to appreciate the real meaning of the season, all embark on a journey where they’ll each learn a lesson about Christmas and life. The characters in the film are clearly not real, but their movements, even down to their facial expressions, so closely mimic real human physicality, while still maintaining the fantastical feel of illustration, that the imagery in the movie seems to blur the line between whimsy and reality. The technique that Zemeckis and Warner Brothers use is called Performance Capture, which involves using computerized cameras to digitally capture the actors’ live performances down to every facial twitch, which can be transformed into virtual characters.While the story of the Polar Express is magical in itself, its meaning goes deeper, touching on the virtues of friendship and belief. It doesn’t simply fall back on the typical cheery messages of Christmas in which all is right with the world by the end. The movie, as well as the book, clearly depicts the beauty of Christmas while still holding onto the realities of the world outside the holiday. The strength of the story lies in its willingness to explore the possibility of a world outside of what we know to be true from within the boundaries of actual human experience and emotion.”The Polar Express” succeeds in re-creating the world of Van Allsburg’s book, and expands on the power of its unique and incredible illustrations by adding in visually thrilling action sequences. This cannot help but captivate viewers as the train progresses through the uncertain wilderness towards the North Pole and the wisdom of Santa himself.