The Conductor is Tom Hanks, the Father is Tom Hanks, even the Hobo is Tom Hanks. Everyone is Tom Hanks in this Robert Zemeckis production, but I’m not even a single neurone mad about it. If there could be one voice to narrate my Christmas eve, besides Jim Carrey and James Stewart, it would most definitely be his.
Upon the strike of midnight on the fateful Noel day, a magical late train circulates Earth. Its Conductor wiggles a moustache over a list of children, who weren’t particularly naughty or nice, but share a trait in common – their dying belief in the spirit of Christmas and Santa Clause himself. The Polar Express is a last chance to entrust them with a sprinkle of life’s secret greatness. Our heroic boy remains nameless, although we still share a seat in his journey to enchantment. Through walking atop the mystery train, to playing with ghosts, seeing elves and keeping the Conductor’s strict timetable, not a second of our night remains stationery. The children’s final destination – the North Pole, where St. Nicholas is preparing for yet another trip around the world. All of their dreams are about to be resurrected, sparking the fire of Christmas once more.
The themes of slipping childhood are highly explored in festive films as an inevitable part of life. Zemeckis manages to portray that experience fully through Hero Boy’s hesitation to trust his new adventure. Lonely Boy, which we meet deeper into the story, almost misses the Polar Express entirely because of mistrust and uncertainty. The realisation that perhaps none of our fantasies are true is a point in time we can relate to, which is what makes the motif so special. It makes identification with the children a lot more natural and entrances us into their story.
There’s not much to say about Tom Hanks’s voice work that you wouldn’t already know. The most famous piece of animation in his repertoire is “Toy Story”‘s character Woody, who kids like me grew up with. The A-lister’s reputation as a generous and kind man brings its energy into the picture, underlining an already clever Conductor with further qualities. This makes for a well-rounded and believable supporting crew that cures Hero Boy’s desperation.
Hero Girl, Lonely Boy and Know-it-All are (to my interpretation) the voices Hero Boy has to battle with while growing up. Hero Girl is his positivity and playfulness, Lonely Boy is the absence of hope and Know-it-All is a desire to think logically and factually. Becoming an adult means they begin to contradict instead of correlate – a struggle our protagonist is pushing through. In the resolution we see these voices become one again – full of Christmas jolliness and cheer instead of unsureness.
My verdict is this – “Polar Express” is the smooth peanut butter on a breakfast piece of toast, the drop of milk in a bitter tea. Although its majority revolves around grittier subject matter, whether we realise it or not, the running theme is a blossoming inspiration. Magic is real and it’s all around us, we can’t forget that around Christmas time.