This morning I, my wife, my two little girls, and my mother-in-law went to see Polar Express. I’ve seen the book around for years, but never really read it. The movie appealed to me because I’m a sucker for Christmas movies.
First I want to talk about the book’s author, Chris Van Allsburg. He was born in 1949 in East Grand Rapids MI, and has a lot of history in this town. That’s why the kids on the train are from Grand Rapids. At one point early in the movie, the train slows as it goes by Herpolsheimers, a department store, so the kids can look in the windows. Herpolsheimers was a store on Monroe Center, where Steketees was until 6 years ago, and a bank is now. They were very very famous for their Christmas stuff, to the extent that people would drive hundreds of miles to shop there. Van Allsburg pays tribute to that store quite well in the movie I think.
Another significant impact of Van Allsburg being from Grand Rapids is that the movie’s international debut was in Grand Rapids. It opened in Grand Rapids one night before the rest of the world.
Now for the technical details. You can see it on the IMAX screen or a regular screen. The IMAX is 3d. We chose not to do the IMAX for 2 reasons. One is that I’ve heard that regular movies on the IMAX screen can be hard to follow, because stuff happens off the edge of your vision. The second reason is that lots of people have told me that little kids don’t do well in 3d IMAX, because they don’t understand that things aren’t going to hit them.
That said, I would now suggest seeing it in the IMAX in 3d. It was built for it, and therefore it does well in the environment. For one thing, they do some stuff very similar to a roller coaster, with a viewpoint looking forward from the very front of the train as it goes over a cliff. On a normal screen it was breathtaking. I can only imagine it would be stunning in 3d on a bigger screen.
The CGI was a curious mix of total realism and slight cartoon, a la Toy Story. My wife doesn’t like computer generated people when they’re intended to look totally real. In my opinion, the people didn’t look totally real. Since I’ve seen more real people, it seems to me that it was on purpose. Either way, I liked the effect.
From IMDb we learn that the train is special too.
The Locomotive in the movie is based on the Pere Marquette 1225 a restored steam locomotive located in Owosso MI. Infact all the sound effects of the train are recordings of the actual train. The train is often run between Owosso and nearby Chesaning MI for rides during festivals.
The story is more complex than I thought it would be. The book is quite short, similar in length to Jumanji. Yet the Jumanji movie turned out quite well, as did Polar Express. And, oh look, the same guy wrote both.
The best part of the whole thing was how my girls enjoyed it. Molly sat still, enthralled, the entire time. I think she only moved to eat more popcorn. Sophi was excited to the extent of being spastic. When the Christmas tree came on the screen, she was bouncing up and down on her seat pointing so vigorously that I thought she was going to fall off her seat, yelling “Momma! Daddy! Molly! Grandma! LOOK LOOK LOOK!!!! A Christmas tree!!!”. There were several points in the movie that had that effect on her.
As I sat there, I found myself thinking that my kids would remember and love this movie the way I remember and love Rudolf, The Little Drummer Boy, and Frosty. Sophi may not remember this viewing (though she might, I remember things from that age), but we’ll watch it in the future, and I know Molly will remember this all her life.
See it, and take a kid.