Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Polar Express

                I really would like to think that my holiday spirit today is what it was nearly nine years ago.  Alas, some of the magic has undoubtedly gone away.  At nineteen, it seems hard for me and just about everyone else my age to believe that we’ll be hearing from jolly old St. Nick any time soon.  However, I don’t think that it really matters what kind of character you are around Christmastime, for the most wonderful time of the year brings out something great in all of us.  At least, that’s the feeling I get when I delve into my past by watching films like The Polar Express.
                This was one of those films that had me stopping and staring when I saw a movie poster advertising it several months in advance.  This is because the book by Chris Van Allsburg was one of the first books I learned to read by myself.  I think I was immediately drawn to such a plotline through a combination of my love of Christmas and my love of railroad history.  In my eyes, few things are more majestic than a classic steam train, and I think a lot of young children feel the same way.  Even at nineteen, the image of that iron horse emerging through the snowy night still gives me a feeling that I am witness to something epic.  Ultimately though, this time I have a slightly different purpose for which to get on board.  Now I have analyzed this film to see what else it tells those children, and I think it says a lot more than meets the eight-year old eye.  With its G-rating, there are few instances in which one might find a message that we would rather not communicate to the five-to-ten year old part of our society, but that does not mean that this is simply some feel-good story about the dominant holiday in this country.  No, this is not just about Christmas and the legend of Santa Claus.  This is about values that we are supposed to cherish throughout our entire lives.  Through a unique blend of ethos, pathos, and logos, this film teaches us a few things that, even at my age, I really should make note of for a long time to come. 

                The appeal that seems to appear the least often, yet stand out the most profoundly, is that of ethos.  The producers of this film undoubtedly wanted to ensure that no child of any kind felt excluded from the movie.  In my book, they succeeded in just about every way.  There are not a lot of children depicted aboard the Polar Express, but within the tight-knit group that was, there were children of all shapes and sizes.  Our main character, who has no name, climbs aboard and sits between a quiet, compassionate girl of African-American descent and a prototypical nerd who is not afraid to flaunt his knowledge, albeit to his own detriment.  Then there’s the kid who sits alone at the back of the train.  Billy, who is the only child aboard the train to be explicitly named, is from a poor, rural area, and we seem to understand from the start that he is a lot like our main character in that they both have some doubts about the existence of Santa Claus.  They haven’t given up on him yet, they just have come to think that “seeing is believing.”  Nowadays, I realize that Billy represents something much more than just another kid who needs a friend.  He tells us later on in the movie during the song “When Christmas Comes to Town” how he feels about Christmas, which has rarely if ever amounted to a happy holiday for him.  Now, this movie will undoubtedly be seen by countless kids who might not receive anything for a certain Christmas, or even any Christmas.  This is for them, an appeal that recognizes the situation of so many.  This character lets us know that Santa Claus cares about each and every one of us equally, even if he doesn’t always make an appearance.  That is, just because you are underprivileged in some way does not make you inferior and it is no excuse to lose the spirit of Christmas.

                There is another very profound appeal to ethos present as far as the characters are concerned.  This one involves those who give our main character the most direct advice on what he is supposed to believe and why.  The train’s conductor might have a bit of a short temper, but he is undoubtedly benevolent to everyone on board the train, as evidenced by the advice he gives to our core group of characters and the attention he pays to their well-being aboard the train.  His way of giving advice to our hero is by giving him a series of choices to make, starting with whether or not to get on the train.  While it seems a bit in poor taste at first, eventually this old softie of a man wins us over completely.  On the other hand, the old hobo that our hero meets on top of the train is an interesting case study.  Upon listening to him speak, you can’t help but ask yourself the questions that we are encouraged to ask by Andrea Lunsford in Everything’s an Argument:  “Can we trust him?” “Do we want to trust him?” (Lunsford 45).  We know two things relatively quickly: he stands in stark contrast to the conductor and he’s some sort of ghost who disappears after bailing the central characters out of dangerous situations at various points.  This latter fact might allow us to believe that we can trust him, as this allows us to determine that he is for the main character.  But the man’s gruff speech and general distaste for life seem to provide him with a somewhat subpar ethos to start with, so we might not necessarily want to trust him.  Eventually, he starts to confront the main character’s personal doubts directly by labeling him things like “doubter” and “scrooge” and doing so in menacing ways.  He sounds like the devil’s advocate in doing so, but ultimately this teaches our hero to confront his own doubtful nature directly and aggressively in turn.  The moral here is a bit difficult to figure out.  I think that it says that you can’t judge a person simply based on what they look like or what they’ve been through.  This poor man scares us in a lot of ways, but he plays an integral role in the transformation of our main character from doubter to believer.  Ethos is not set in stone once established.  Rather, it is constantly changing for every person in some shape or form that is not always easily seen.

                As with any children’s movie, the appeal that probably sticks in the minds of these youths for the longest time is that to pathos.  It was no different for me nine years ago, although I will admit that the scenes that evoked the most emotion in me were probably slightly different from those of my comrades.  As I said earlier, just seeing a 2-8-4 Baldwin locomotive at full throttle was enough to give me the chills.  As far as the images and sounds of this film are concerned, this movie was part of the dawning of a new era in animation.  No longer would the vast majority of children’s movies be cartoonish and very two-dimensional animated films.  Four years into the twenty-first century, the golden age of the animated children’s movie (at least to us children of the 1990s) appears to have ended.  At age nineteen, I can see that The Polar Express has its flaws.  Some concepts of motion appear just a touch off from realistic and occasionally speech patterns do not match up exactly with the audio, a trait that could be covered for easily in earlier animated films.  At age eleven, though, I was oblivious to these facts.  In fact, it looked as real as could be to me at that point and the emotion that it evoked in me stayed with me for some time after seeing the film.  Today, when I think of this movie, what immediately comes to mind for me is the scene that takes place as the train is circling the sheer mountain and the conductor is talking to the two main characters about real things we don’t need to see to believe.  Then they climb down into the first car on the train and the dream briefly turns into a nightmare.  The color seemingly drains from the picture as the central characters examine piles of toys that had been neglected and were being recycled.  This was a haunting image the first time I saw it, but looking back on this film, I’ve noticed two new things about this scene.  Having things appear to turn a shade of gray is a technique designed to make things appear tainted or hopeless, something that Louis D. Giannetti hinted at in Understanding Movies.  He gave two examples of scenes in movies that saw once vibrant colors fade to a sickly shade as the situation became ever direr for those involved (Giannetti 25).  I did not think that such a technique could be applied to animation, but this group of producers somehow pulled it off.  The effect still was as profound nine years later, but my reaction this time was significantly different to my original one.  The first sentence that came to mind was, “You’re going to cry over damaged toys when such neglect happens to people?”  Granted, young moviegoers always take such a side, but this is treading a fine line that I am not sure that I would endorse if I was a producer for this film.  Whether this is simply an effort to remind children to take good care of their things or a missed opportunity to make a larger statement is in the eye of the beholder.  Regardless, if this is a potential problem message in any way, it is not a glaring one, and the list of such occurrences in this film is not long.  I see no significant issues arising as a result of this film, hence it is deserving of the ’G’ rating.  As a whole, the appeals to pathos present in The Polar Express seem to be what gives the film its substance.  Emotion plays a large role in children’s movies, and this instance is no different.
                Most of the lessons emphasized in The Polar Express are made explicit so that developing minds can process them.  However, I noticed a number of messages that might have flown under the radar for me at age eleven.  These are not exactly implicit, but one must put two and two together in order to properly understand them.  Hence, these fall under the category of appeals to logos.  This is a skill that a ten-year old theater-goer might possess, but a six-year old might not.  Two life lessons that are meant to be hinted at are present very near the beginning of the film.  “You shouldn’t believe everything you read” immediately popped into my head when our main character began looking through his encyclopedia and the latest magazines, all of which hint at the apparent certainty that there is no Santa Claus.  The second involves seizing opportunities as our hero faced the decision of whether or not to get on the train.  Having made the right choice in the beginning, he is faced with numerous small choices that end up having far-reaching consequences.  Sometimes you need to be proactive and sometimes you have to have to know your limits.  This is a logical deduction that I made after our main character tried to be the hero on numerous occasions by trying to return his friend’s ticket.  He ends up on a wild ride atop the train after finding the ticket that he had originally lost by trying to go the extra mile.  The reason he does this is because the know-it-all in front of him said that the conductor would throw the girl off the train if she didn’t have a ticket.  This is a ludicrous statement, but just about all the children believe it.  The lesson here is: don’t listen to rumors and don’t take the word of just anyone; the conductor was not about to throw her off the train.  These are the kinds of implied messages that we see throughout the film, but just in case the younger children don’t quite pick up on them, there are more explicit morals that are brought to the forefront with things like Santa’s personal advice to each of the primary characters.  All-in-all, there is something for just about everyone to gain, as just about every possible viewpoint is represented in some way.  It all comes down to one’s ability to interpret the appeals to logos in this film.
                “Sometimes seeing is believing and sometimes the most real things in life are the things we can’t see.”  This quote carries a very powerful message in my book.  The conductor says this to the two central characters, and he leaves interpreting the meaning of his words up to them.  This is obviously not only in reference to the legend of Santa Claus, as the topic of conversation just prior to this quote involves things like spirits and angels.  Then is this some kind of appeal to religion?  It really is not beyond the realm of possibility that the average eight-year-old might ask the question: Is believing in Santa Claus really not all that different from believing in God?  People of the Christian faith take pride in the fact that their faith is not based on sight.  In other words, seeing is not believing, living in blind faith is.  Could this quote be encouraging the youthful viewers to be good children of God?  I think it makes an appeal to just about everyone who has some sort of deity in their lives.  Or maybe the intention is the other way around, as believing in the Lord is not all that different from believing in Santa Claus.  The implications of such belief are somewhat different, but I am willing to bet that children will pick up on these things and ask their parents some difficult questions.  It is a logical appeal that carries great meaning, and I believe that it is completely worthwhile.  I might not have understood it completely back in 2004, but regardless, I remembered this quote.  I think a lot of other children probably did as well.
                The Polar Express is one of those films that have stayed with me over the years.  I mean, what better way to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year than aboard a magic train.  Looking back on it, I now realize that there is so much more to it than met my eleven-year old eyes.  A multitude of appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos gives this film a degree of depth and quality that I think are matched by few other children’s movies that I became attached to in my years growing up.  This film looked as real as could be to me at first, and its initial effects on me were certainly very real.  Regardless as to whether or not I heeded any of the lessons presented in this film, The Polar Express has always kept a small place in my state of mind each year at Christmas.  I hope it has a place in the lives of children for years to come.  Need I say more?  Three the North Pole.

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