Making the Grades
Taking any book and making it into a movie can be a challenge. But choosing a classic children's tale like The Polar Express is even trickier. This Caldecott Medal winner is a mere 32 pages, many of which are filled with more illustrations than text.
Nevertheless it seems to be a fitting undertaking for a duo no less notable than director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Cast Away) and actor Tom Hanks, a team that has obviously worked together before. Combining Zemeckis' talent for special effect and Hanks' vocal abilities (he voices six characters in this film), the production crew also employed a new animation technique called Performance Capture. This technology uses sensors attached to an actor's frame to digitally capture body movement and facial expression and transfer them to the virtual character.
That, along with a budget of $170 million, has the story of an unnamed little boy building up steam.
The lad (Hanks) is at the juncture in life when it's hard to believe in Santa. Lying perfectly still in his bed on Christmas Eve, he listens intently for the sound of sleigh bells. Instead, after falling asleep, he is awakened by the roar of a massive locomotive rumbling and grinding to a stop outside his window on the quiet suburb street.
Rushing out the door in only his pajamas and slippers, he is invited to board the train by a time-conscious conductor (Hanks) who keeps a close eye on his gold pocket watch. Once aboard, the young boy is greeted by a carload of similarly clad children. Chugging toward the North Pole, they too are in search of the jolly Elf.
However, the journey itself seems to be far more important than the final destination. Learning to believe in one's self, others, or Old St. Nick are lessons each of the tiny travelers have to discover with the help of their fellow passengers and a stowaway hobo (Hanks) who rides on top of the train.
Fortunately for viewers, the backdrop for this schooling is as stunning as the storybook itself. The film captures the brilliant artwork of author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg who reportedly had reservations about turning The Polar Express into a theatrical production after an earlier movie version of his book Jumanji took on a decidedly different tone than the original narrative.
Like the picture book, this film is a time to suspend reality and get caught up in the moment. Other than some instances of peril, which may frighten very young audience members, this screenplay is free of the baggage found in many recent children's films. There are no potty jokes or profanities, no belching or burping. Only moments of pure, roller coaster exhilaration as the passengers race over the tracks in search of Christmas magic... and the sound of Santa's sleigh bells.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Polar Express.
What did the hero boy have to do in order to hear the sleigh bells? What did he discover about his parents?
What acts of compassion did the little girl show to the last boy who got on the train? In what ways is she a leader? What helped her to grow in confidence?
The conductor says, “Sometimes the most real things in this world are the things we can’t see.” What things do you believe in although you can’t see them? Can you still hear Santa’s bells?