Dreaming of a dark Christmas
The Polar Express is an ‘enchanting and melancholy’ addition to the Christmas movie canon
The reviewers seem oddly divided on the merits of The Polar Express. Some, like Roger Ebert and Mick LaSalle, have hailed it as an instant classic, while a good many others have found it cold, chilling, lifeless or even “creepy.”
I bought into it enough to agree that this Robert Zemeckis production does have the makings of a pop-cultural classic of Christmas sentiment. But the greater part of my enthusiasm for the film rides on the very things that its detractors have found off-putting—its artificial visual style, its cool detachment, its penchant for quietly eerie detail.
Adapted from Chris Van Allsburgh’s 32-page best-seller for children, the film works very nicely as a kind of offbeat wonder tale. Even though its ostensible premise is a homily about the importance of believing in Santa Claus, the film mixes innocent (and sometimes spectacular) cartoon fantasy with small touches of half-concealed grotesquerie. The result is a kind of fantasy that is both enchanting and melancholy.
The slightly wizened look of the Boy Hero and the other kid characters contributes to this unexpected pathos, as does the film’s declared interest in sustaining a kind of “magic” that is admittedly inseparable from the short-lived innocence of early childhood. In that respect, the film is a gently enthusiastic display of nostalgia that repeatedly gives us intimations of its own mortality.
Not the least of the film’s intriguingly dark undercurrents is in its resolutely secular approach to Christmas. The movie’s Xmas is almost exclusively that of gift-giving and -receiving at family gatherings. Santa Claus and his reindeer and elves (some of whom seem to speak Yiddish) are manifestly present, but the Christ child and nativity scenes are nowhere to be found.
The Polar Express celebrates the spirit of Christmas as a kind of free-floating spirit of generosity in the midst of a risky and profoundly materialistic world. An innocent kind of faith is at a premium, but there’s no missing the sense of much that is harsh and dehumanized in the world of adults. Santa’s workshop, after all, is not a cozy workroom here, but rather a great echoing assembly-line factory that makes dwarves out of anyone who enters it.