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Monday, December 02, 2013

The Polar Express

Hey, everybody! Ready for the second day of “THE POP CULTURE ADDICT'S ADVENT CALENDAR”? I sure hope so, because on the second day of the calendar, the Monday Matinee gave to me, a discussion on a holiday movie!

And, although the movie has yet to reach its tenth anniversary (it was released in 2004), it has catapulted itself into a real holiday classic.

Now, I do wish to make one little disclaimer before I go ahead with this topic.  I had already had half of this particular blog entry already typed out before I heard about the news of the horrible train derailment in New York.  And, given that today's blog topic happens to heavily feature a train, I did consider choosing another topic because I did not want to seem insensitive to those people who may have been hurt or worse.

But since I had most of the entry written already, it would be a shame to shelve it.  So, I've decided to go ahead with today's topic.  After all, the theme of the film is all about bringing happiness to boys and girls all over the world.

Now, since I've brought up the topic of trains, I've always been surrounded by them.  My father worked for a major Canadian railway for a little over three decades, and I remember riding on a train at least once a year for the first twelve years of my life.  I went to all the train safety assemblies (which were kind of a refresher, as my dad drilled train safety into the heads of myself and my two older siblings for the duration of his career), I used to watch "Shining Time Station" and "Thomas the Tank Engine" when I was a kid, I owned a mechanical train set when I was younger.  Heck, even my very first Christmas ornament is in the shape of a train.

(I'll be talking more about ornaments a little bit later in the blog this month.)

Anyway, with growing up in a family where my father worked beside trains his entire career, trains were always going to be a huge part of my life.  But, who knew that trains could also be a symbol of Christmas?

I suppose that having a Christmas ornament in the shape of a train could have been a dead giveaway.  But then you have a Christmas song that talks about a little toy train.  Here, I'll post a link below.

And, I guess you could say that trains could also be a part of a Christmas celebration, especially after viewing this classic Coca-Cola commercial from the 1990s (even though it's really a convoy of transport trucks, it sort of gives off the illusion that it's a huge train, so yes I'm totally cheating here.)

But, I don't think there could be any better example of equating trains with holiday celebrations than this movie, which was originally released in theatres in November 2004.  And, the star of the whole movie was Tom Hanks, though you might not initially recognize him when you first watch this movie.

You see, the whole film was filmed almost entirely using live action performance capture technique, meaning that an actor could play more than one role in the movie while looking absolutely different in each role.  With the magic of computer generated graphics and the technology of motion capture, the film was a brilliant display of beauty.

No wonder people were so awed by "The Polar Express".  

Now, as I mentioned earlier, Tom Hanks was the star of the whole movie.  Would you believe that he played no less than SIX different roles in the film?  It's a wonder that Tom Hanks even had time to eat and sleep with such a huge commitment!  But then again, I suppose that it was all worth it, as Hanks really expressed a desire to be in the movie - which was based on a book that was written by Chris Van Allsburgh.  And with Robert Zemeckis as the director of the movie, all signs pointed to "The Polar Express" being a huge hit.  And, certainly, I've rung through several copies of the movie on both DVD and Blu-ray through the cash registers at work to know that people are still wanting to watch it.

But here's the thing about "The Polar Express".  Although the film made almost three times its budget in profits, it wasn't initially considered to be the most perfect film.  If anything, critics gave the movie mixed reviews.  While many loved the film's plot, and believed that the background visuals were gorgeous, others claimed that the characters appeared to be more like holiday zombies.  I'll admit that the film kind of looked awkward in some places, but at the same time, the film was released nine years ago. I'm willing to look the other way.  And besides, the plot of the film is so good, you can almost overlook some of the most terrible examples of bad CGI.

So, what's the film about?  Well, I don't think I can go into too much detail, because you know how I never ever want to spoil the ending of a movie, but basically the early plot goes a little something like this.

The story starts off fifty years in the past (which according to the film being released in 2004, takes place sometime during the 1950s).  And somewhere in the middle of a small community, a little boy has lost his faith in Santa Claus.

NOTE:  The small boy may have been played by Tom Hanks in the motion capture aspect of it all, but the voice was recorded by Daryl Sabara, best known for playing the role of Juni in the "Spy Kids" series.

Anyway, we have a little boy who finds it difficult to believe in Santa Claus, and is filled with more questions than answers when something absolutely magical happens.

After hearing a noise outside that sounds like a train whistle, the little boy goes outside to investigate and comes across a gigantic train.  The train is named "The Polar Express:", and the conductor promises the boy that if he hops on the train, it will take him to the North Pole, where the children on board can visit Santa.  Naturally, our hero boy initially treads with caution and thinks about not taking this once-in-a-lifetime offer because of the fact that he questions Santa's existence and he was likely told at a young age to not board any strange trains that pass by.

But throwing caution to the wind, he decides to board the train anyway, and as he is given his ticket, he discovers that there are other children on the train, including a little girl (Nona Gaye), and a know-it-all boy (Eddie Deezen).  Another boy named Billy (Peter Scolari) also boards the train, but it takes "Hero Boy" to pull the emergency brake on the train to stop it before Billy finds the courage to board "The Polar Express".

As the train moves closer and closer to the North Pole, the passengers are treated like royalty, with the train serves even providing free cups of hot chocolate to sip on.  After all, the North Pole is the coldest place in the whole world.  The little girl decides to take an extra cup and smuggle it into the next car so that Billy can have some too, but is caught by the conductor.  Luckily, the conductor is a nice guy, and he helps her deliver the cocoa to Billy.  Unfortunately, when the girl leaves to the next car, she leaves behind her ticket, which then proceeds to blow away when the boy tries to return the ticket back to her.  And, this causes a bit of a problem.  Without a ticket, the passenger becomes a stowaway.  And, in almost every case that I've read about, stowaways are almost always thrown off of a train if they don't have a ticket.  Whatever is a girl to do?  

And what happens when "The Polar Express" finally arrives at the North Pole?  Will the kids finally come face to face with the guy in the red suit, thus giving our young hero boy hope?  And, how does a little bell play into the equation?

Like I said...I won't spoil it for you.  Even if most of you have either read the book or seen the movie, I refuse to spoil movie endings.

However, there are some interesting tidbits of trivia from this film that I think some of you might be interested in.

1 - SeaWorld Orlando once had a motion simulation ride based on this film that opened up in November 2007.

2 - This movie reunited two former co-stars.  Peter Scolari and Tom Hanks once acted alongside each other some twenty-five years before this film debuted in a little show called "Bosom Buddies".

3 - This film would mark the last appearance of actor Michael Jeter.  The actor (who did the motion capture roles of Smokey and Steamer) passed away in 2003, a year and a half before the finished product appeared on screen.

4 - The locomotive pulling "The Polar Express" was based on the "Pere Marquette #1225" model.  Interestingly enough, 1225 is also the way that Christmas Day is written numerically.  And speaking of the 1225 connection...

5 - ...look closely at the tickets that are given to the passengers.  All the tickets contain the number 1225 on them.

6 - The motion capture actor for the little girl is a girl by the name of Tinashe Jorgenson Kachingwe (better known as just Tinashe).  After "The Polar Express" was released, she would later be known as a musician, being a part of the group "The Stunners".

7 - The real name of the Hero Boy is never mentioned once during the whole film.

8 - This was the first film to be simultaneously released as a 3D IMAX presentation.

9 - In 2006, the film was given the Guinness Book of World Record for being the first "all-digital capture film".

10 - The scene where Hero Boy looks at a picture of himself sitting on a department store Santa's lap is actually a nod to the author of the book, Chris Van Allsburg.  The name of the store is Herpolsheimer's, an actual department store in Grand Rapids, Michigan - the town where Van Allsburg grew up.

11 - Although the film was released nationwide on November 10, 2004, the film premiere was actually held in October 2004 - in Van Allsburg's hometown of Grand Rapids.

12 - When the conductor reads out the address of 11344 Edbrook, it is actually the address of the childhood home of director Robert Zemeckis.

And, that wraps up our look back on "The Polar Express".  I hope you all enjoyed that, because the advent calendar is in full swing.

And, coming up on Day #3, a Tuesday Timeline entry that I am hoping that you will enjoy.  And, to give you a little bit of a hint on what the subject is, a closing video.

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