“Are you sure?”
This is a question asked several times during this movie, based on the exquisitely lovely Chris Van Allsburg book. It is a fitting question for a story about a boy struggling with his beliefs about Christmas.
It begins with a man remembering a Christmas Eve of long ago, when a boy whose name we never learn lies very still in his bed. It isn’t because he is too excited to sleep. He isn’t staying awake because he wants to hear Santa. He is afraid that he will not hear anything. He is getting older and better able to question what he has been told based on what he reads in newspapers and the encyclopedia. It is getting harder for him to believe.
The boy hears a sound and runs outside in the snow. An enormous locomotive pulls up in front of his house and the conducter invites him to board. He looks out the window and it appears that his snowman is waving goodbye.
The train is bound for the North Pole and our unnamed hero/narrator will have many adventures and find the answer to his questions before he wakes up in his own bed on Christmas morning.
The boy wants to believe. But he doesn’t want to be bamboozled, or “railroaded.” Seeing is believing. But he also doesn’t want to be a doubter, like Scrooge. Director Robert Zemeckis has done a fairly good job of maintaining the integrity of the brief story as it is expanded to feature length. The complications of the journey are well-paced and consistent with the story’s themes, though the know-it-all character becomes grating very quickly. It is less successful after the arrival at the North Pole, when the expasion starts to feel like filler, particularly when a nice selection of timeless Christmas standards on the soundtrack gives way to a lackluster rock song that brings the story to a standstill for no discernable reason. And the wonder of Christmas seems a bit too centered on the pleasure of getting gifts, particularly for the lonely boy, whose past neglect on Christmas — and present present — is never explained.
The animators have done their best to preserve the look of Chris Van Allsburg’s lovely illustrations. The result is attractive, if coarser and less graceful. There are moments of great beauty, especially the vertiginous ride as we watch a golden train ticket carried away by an eagle. And there are wonderfully imaginative images, dancing waiters pouring hot chocolate from silver pots with triple-spouts, Santa’s huge workshops with viewing screens for naughty-nice monitoring and pneumatic tubes for transporting toys, and sometimes people.
But the greatest challenge in animation, whether hand-drawn or computer-generated, is human beings. Humans are complex and unpredictable. And we know human faces so well that the slightest discrepancy in expression feels chilly at best and becomes a major distraction at worst. Here, director Robert Zemeckis, who pioneered new technologies with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump oversaw the development of a new technique based on filming the actors in live action and then “capturing” their performances in computer animation. The result has a slightly chill and dreamy, even ghostly quality. To an extent, that suits the story’s mood and setting. It detracts from the story that the animators have not quite mastered facial expressions or the weight of people and objects. But the voice of Tom Hanks in six different roles, including the conductor, a mysterious hobo, and Santa, adds real warmth.
Parents should know that the movie may be too intense and frightening for the youngest children. There are roller-coaster-y action sequences with some close calls, but no one is injured. Some children who are grappling with their own beliefs about Christmas may find the movie unsettling, but most will find it reassuring.
Families who see this movie should talk about each of the lessons punched into the tickets given to the children. Why was each of those lessons the right one for that child? They should also talk about the difference between that which can be proven and that which must be believed without proof. When the conductor says, “Sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see,” what is is talking about? What is a “crucial year?” Why can’t some people hear the bell? Who is the hobo and why is he there?
Families who enjoy this movie should read the marvelous book, written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, and his others, especially Jumanji and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. They will also appreciate other Christmas stories like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And they will enjoy learning more about the Northern Lights.