Monday, December 7th, 2009
Tom Hanks made my child cry
Alternate title: Polar Express: A great book made into an evil movie
Movie rating: on a scale of 1 to 5: 0
I’m behind on pop culture, so it was only last Thursday that I read Polar Express to my 5-year-old daughter. It was wonderful. I highly recommend the book. Plaudits all around.
It’s about a magical train that stops in front of a boy’s house on Christmas Eve. He boards it and discovers the train cars are filled with children eating candy on their way to see Santa at the North Pole. Once there, Santa picks the boy to receive the first gift of Christmas, and he chooses a bell from one of Santa’s reindeer.
Alas, the boy loses the bell and returns home saddened. Christmas morning he finds the bell wrapped under the Christmas tree. It rings loud and true to him, but his parents cannot hear it because (and this point is veiled, not obvious to young readers) — the parents don’t hear the bell because they don’t believe.
Good, clean family fear
Come Saturday, I bought the DVD for our family movie night thinking it’ll be a classic we’ll watch every year. I recall it receiving rave reviews in the press. Little did I know that author Chris Van Allsburg had sold his soul to the devil Tom Hanks.
I single Tom Hanks out because he plays six highly recognizable characters in the film. Without Hanks, I see someone else making this movie, perhaps someone interested in telling an innocently sweet story.
Ho, ho, holy molly this movie is a train wreck. It’s nothing short of a sadistic experiment to see how many gallons of fluid can be meted from the tear ducts of young fans of the book.
The film begins auspiciously with an Edward Scissorhands-style musical score filled with wonder. The computer animation is fantastic. The whole thing has a dreamlike quality. Pure joy.
It’s all just a setup to lull youngsters into thinking they are embarking on 100 minutes of fun. Wait, 100 minutes for a 30 page book with minimal words? Yeah, they fill in the 100 minutes with shear terror.
You could say they stray from the original story a little.
First our young male hero climbs onto the roof of the speeding train, in the frozen snowy darkness. It’s all played for fear. He’s terrified. There in the darkness he encounters a creepy, weird hobo who later turns out to be a ghost.
The boy slips and hangs onto the edge of the roof by one hand for a while, then the train plummets downhill at breakneck speeds — while the boy skis uncontrollably forward with the hobo — toward a tunnel with a ceiling so low it will kill him if he doesn’t get down off the train’s roof in time. His face actually stretches from the G-forces he’s submitted to on the downhill slide.
The rest is a blur. They repeatedly treat the train like a roller coaster, up and down, the train’s brakes go out and so forth. None of this is ever portrayed as fun like a real roller coaster… the characters are terrified.
Anyhow, the train skids across a frozen lake. The entire train almost falls into the lake as it speeds away from a huge crack in the ice that is chasing them. As they slide, Hanks shouts “Left!” and “Right” from the rooftop as direction because they need to slide through a narrow opening in a rocky cliff at the edge of the lake where the train track resumes. Miss just a little and the train will explode into the mountainside and then sink in the lake.
“Hey, let’s fill one of the train cars with used toys Santa is going to refurbish. Now, how can I make this scene scary?” –How I imagine the screenwriter approached his task.
Even in Santa’s wonderland there is terror to be found — a runaway train car, a high-wire walk by the boy and other children from the train, sliding down a 10-story-tall funnel and a humongous Christmas tree tropper that plummets toward a public square filled with elves that will surely kill them if something isn’t done. And so on.
In the beginning of the film, my wife and I tried to play up a fun angle to the terror. “Weee! It’s like the roller coaster at the county fair!” Umm, no. She was having none of it.
“I don’t want to watch this.”
She said that whenever I was slow with the remote control. We fast-forwarded through half the film.
I’m torn between wanting to toughen my daughter up a little and consoling her regarding her abject fear of the horrific scenes being imprinted in her psyche. And there’s the whole damn investment I made in talking up the idea of watching the movie of the book she loved and my hoping it might get better in a few minutes.
In case you’re wondering, the film is rated G.
Love me, hate me
The weird part, the really weird part, is that every time the kids save themselves from certain death, the auspicious wonder-filled musical score starts back up and we’re supposed to marvel at the Northern Lights, a duet sung in the moonlight, the sight of Santa’s city or Santa’s grand arrival.
It’s like the cycle of domestic violence where a woman alternates between being hugged and punched in the face. WTF are you doing to my child Tom Hanks?
No, wait, I know what it’s like. It’s like remaking Old Yeller, but instead of having a lovely story with a few tears when the dog dies at the end, they decide to kill the dog every 10 minutes.
Yeah, woo, look at the pretty pictures. I would enjoy them more if my underwear wasn’t soiled.
Santa’s first gift of Christmas
And, hey, the main character acquired two friends on the train. One of his new friends has never had Christmas “work out for him.” He doesn’t mean Santa keeps giving him the wrong gifts. Either his parents have never given him a gift, or he is in a neglectful foster home, or who knows what. The kid is depressed, and depressing.
Whatever abuse he has endured in life totally makes him deserving of being selected by Santa to receive the first gift of Christmas. It’s actually a let down when the bland, normal main character is picked for no other reason than he was standing in front of Santa at the time.
We’re never given a reason to sympathize or root for the main character. His two friends on the train, though, are a victim and a courageous leader. We want to see those two succeed. Hey Santa, give ‘em all a reindeer bell and new underwear you cheapskate. Why did you haul all these kids to the North Pole in the first place? For your own vanity, because you wanted to make a grand entrance?
Seriously, Santa shows up and then the kids get sent home empty-handed.
The one nice part of the film, the one tiny magical part where Santa takes off in his sleigh to deliver gifts around the world, even that was soiled when the camera abruptly shifted to a rock ‘n’ roll Christmas carol led by an elf modeled after Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. WTF?! Again!!! This is not a Disney film staring Robin Williams!
By all means, don’t believe
The book was about the joy of the magical world of Santa Claus.
The movie’s intended message is different — about kids who struggle with belief. The main character is questioning whether Santa is real, and by having the movie harp on this element of disbelief it directly introduces to children that there is reason to disbelieve.
If you want your kid to stop believing in Santa, definitely show him this film.
I will be very lucky if my daughter lets me read the book to her again. Thank you Tom Hanks for ruining Christmas. You unbelievable bastard.