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.

9 thoughts on “Polar Express

  1. I live in Seward, Nebraska, pop. 6,000. Last night (12-14-04) at our Chamber of Commerce Extravaganza (Holiday Party), we celebrated the 130th anniversary of “Herpolsheimer’s” . They started as an implement dealer and are now a Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep dealership. We were SHOCKED to see “Herpolscheimers in the movie, but it’s nice to now know the origin of where that came from. Thanks.

  2. I read your blog re Polar Express.

    Just a slight correction on the location of Herpolsheimers. I was actually located at the corner of Monroe, Division, and Fulton, where the police station is currently located. I was born and lived in GR from 1949 through 1967 and during the early years visited Santa and (the talking) Rudolph in the basement of that department store.

    Steketees, from my earliest memories, was always located in the the building that bares it name. And just down from there was another GR landmark, Wurzburgs (sp), which was long since been a parking lot.

    My wife and I just saw the Polar Express movie and wondered if the reference to Herpolsheimers wasn’t a wink at the small monorail that ran along the ceiling that children (we) used to ride to visit Santa and Rudolph.

    Steven Mazurek

  3. Thanks for the info Steve. I was going on the childhood memories of a guy I work with, not any real study of my own. 🙂 I still love that part of town. I’m sad they put a street in there, but it looks really nice. It even has heated sidewalks now!


  5. Just a small correction to the Robert Ward Cullen comment. Actually the store eventually had two locations: the downtown location and the former Wurzburg’s Southland location on 28th street, which was opened during my tenure as the sales promtion manager from 1973 to 1977. By the way, since most of the population called the store Herp’s it was adopted for all marketing efforts during that period of time. Herp’s also sported one of the largest American flags in the USA in the large front window at the intersection of Division, Monroe and Fulton.

  6. I rode the train as a child several times at Herpolsheimers, it was a christmas tradition for our family….my wife and I are from Byron Center, 20 minutes south of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Tonight December 17, 2006 was the first time we saw the movie “Polar Express” as it was broadcast on the Disney Channel. We near fell out of our seats when we heard and saw Herpolsheimers to open the movie…then we heard Grand Rapids and wondered aloud?

  7. My father was a furniture buyer for Herp’s. I have many found memories of christmas time in the basement. There was a young man that would give me free rides on the train for a few years and made me promise not to tell my father. I love meeting with rudolph by the fireplace and getting my xmas gift after meeting with Santa. When I first watched the polar express I was amazed and thought the author must have had similar experiences. What a wonderful memorie from childhood.

  8. I am currently in Hawaii with my 3 year old grandson, Jeremy. We are on our (at least) 8th viewing of ‘Polar Express.’ It is Jeremy’s favorite film/video! It amuses him early in the morning, while we are getting ready for our day’s adventures. This is not the first time I’ve seen the film, as my husband and I saw it with our California grandchildren on the IMAX screen. However, with each viewing, I am transported back to Grand Rapids, where I was born in 1944.
    While a student at GRJC, I worked at Herpolsheimers….(In fact, I recall the day JFK was shot, we were all standing in the TV section of the store in tears, watching the unbelievable events of the day.) Back to the Polar Express and Herpolsheimers!! As children, my brother and I looked forward to Christmas time and riding on the train, which was, indeed, mounted on the ceiling of the basement of the store. Riding it each year was a special treat. The store windows were always decorated beautifully, with magical Christmas scenes, as were the windows of Wurzburg’s, further down Monroe Avenue. I recall at Wurzburg’s, we were given Santa Claus pins, if we visited with Santa on an upper floor of the store (after riding up in an elevator with an elevator operator). On the same floor, Grandma would pay some amount, so we could visit with Mickey and Minnie Mouse, who would bring us a wrapped gift from inside their holiday house, too. Christmas was truly a magical time….and the magic of snow underfoot made it all the more special.

    Chris Van Allsburg has brought the chidlhood magic of those times to life in this full length feature, which will enthrall future generations.

    What a treat for all of us….to be transported through the vision Van Allsburg has created. Thanks for the gift….and the memories!

  9. P.S. I believe the window that faced on Division was known to be the largest plate glass window in the USA. That was in the 1950-1960 era. It did, indeed, display a large American flag and was almost adjacent to our Veterans Memorial Park, located just a block north, by the old Ryerson Library.

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