The new computer-animated film The Polar Express (opening on Nov. 10 at local theaters and IMAX) is most likely going to be thought of as typical kiddie fare. It is kiddie fare, but it's not at all typical. And the film, based on the wildly popular book by Chris Van Allsburg, is going to surprise adult audiences in that it's both entertaining and thoughtful. The story tells of a nameless young boy who finds that the meaning of Christmas is all about believing, and learns, wistfully, about what happens when we let our beliefs fritter away as we grow older.
"I remember reading The Polar Express to my kids," says Tom Hanks, who plays five roles in the film. "I always got a very tactile feeling from reading the book, as well as a very elegant, simple, complicated, sophisticated story about what Christmas means to each and every one of us."
Filled with music and enchantment, the film introduces the boy on a Christmas Eve just at the age when he's having second thoughts about the existence of Santa Claus, until he's invited to ride on a magical train that's heading for the North Pole. This sets him on a journey of self-exploration that leads to some discoveries.
Bob Zemeckis, who directed Hanks in Forrest Gump and Castaway, was the one guy Hanks wanted to make Polar after Hanks bought the rights. Part of this was because he knew of Zemeckis' philosophy about movies and kids.
"When I was a kid, I never wanted to see a movie that was made for kids," says Zemeckis. "I only wanted to see a movie that was made for adults. And I believe all the great kid movies were made for adults. So my approach was to make this movie for adults, because kids get everything. One of the things they resent is when they're being talked down to. So I just made the movie that I thought I'd enjoy and other people would enjoy. Obviously there are boundaries, because you don't want kids to be offended or disturbed by the movie, but I just did it and hoped that the kids would enjoy it."
Chris Van Allsburg must have been thinking some of the same thoughts when he wrote and illustrated the book almost 20 years ago. He's never been worried about young readers "getting" what he's writing about.
"The interesting thing about getting it is that it's not necessary for your audience to get it in the way that you intended it to be gotten," he says.
Van Allsburg wrote a book called The Stranger, which was about a farmer who accidentally runs someone over one fall in Vermont when the weather was just getting cooler. The man, who is dressed in leather, jumps up, but is dazed, and the farmer takes him home till he recovers. It turns out that he's Jack Frost, and while he was with the farmer, the seasons have stopped. When he remembers who he is, he takes off, and the leaves start turning colors.
"The Jack Frost myth is one all kids in the northern Midwest are exposed to and all kids in New England are familiar with, but down South they never heard it," says Van Allsburg. "But I get mail from kids who think, who is this guy? They think maybe he's a deer who has been re-embodied as a human being, some think he's Jesus Christ. They have all sorts of interpretations, and even though they don't get it in the way I intended it to be gotten, they love the story."
Hanks takes it a step further, adding that he's a fan of other Van Allsburg books, such as Jumanji and The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.
"There's this incredible mystery to them, and you can almost be afraid," he says. "They're like little miniature Twilight Zone episodes, that are more benign than Twilight Zone, but are still wrought with this kind of danger and power and jeopardy."
Van Allsburg likes comments like Hanks!. "That's pretty apt," he laughs. "Clearly, this is a kids film and what I do are kids books. But I don't sit down with thoughts on my mind about whether kids will really like it or what should I do to make sure kid's do like it? I just want to make a story that satisfies me."
It was Hanks who approached Van Allsburg about getting the film made. "We talked about what his goals and ambitions were for this," recalls Van Allsburg. "It wasn't clear from the outset that Bob would direct it. But after some story development happened, Tom got him directly involved. Bob had literal intentions; he wasn't talking about metaphor or analogy when he said he wanted to make the book come to life. He meant he wanted to take exactly what he saw on the page -- because he saw that as being intrinsic to the mood and feeling you got when you read the text -- and if we could get it to look like the book, and then present the book's themes and values, then we should have something that when you leave the movie theater, you have a feeling that is very much like, but hopefully more intense, than the feeling you have when you close the book."