(Publication date: Nov. 26, 2004)

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Polar Express

Belief is a funny thing. It can apply to little things, as in, "I believe I’ll go rent that new special
edition of
Showgirls," followed immediately by, "I believe I’ll hide the DVD case under my stack
Smithsonian magazines." And it can apply to big things, as in, "I believe in God and in a heaven
with a screening room full of La-Z-Boy recliners and open snack bars offering all-you-can eat
popcorn made with only free-range canola oil and dished up by servers who all look like Brad Pitt
and Ashley Judd."

The holiday season is bulging with belief, and its second cousin, hope. Merchants hope their cash
registers will sing about sales. World leaders hope other world leaders will talk about peace. And
we all hope for a decent new holiday film. This year, the jury’s still out on the cash register and
peace deal, but at least we’ve got our movie. It’s
The Polar Express.

In this one, Tom Hanks plays Hero Boy. (No way he’ll be called simply Aaron, or Zack, not
when there’s a mythological journey involved and Joseph Campbell books are still selling like hot
chestnuts at Union Square in December.) Tom Hanks plays five other roles, too, including the
mysterious hobo who rides atop the train and has more enigmatic lessons to teach than your high
school trigonometry teacher. And he plays the boy’s father, but not his mother, probably because
one Bosom Buddy is enough for anyone’s resume. I figured maybe he would also play the guy in
the ticket booth when we showed up at the Oaks in Berkeley, but I guess he was busy that night
studying the Mona Lisa for his rumored gig as the star of
The Da Vinci Code a summer or two
from now.

Seeing Christmas movies is pretty much a matter of belief at our house, where no one has ever
actually said there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. We believe we’ll watch
It’s a Wonderful Life
on Christmas Eve and we do, after watching
White Christmas the night before and A Christmas
(1951 version) the night before that. I guess that’s why Allison gave us the angry elf look
after she came back from looking at colleges and found out that I had taken Parker to see
Polar Express
without her. I believe Dad’s Christmas haul might be a little light this year.

I also believe that, except for the book version, you haven’t seen anything quite like
The Polar
movie, unless it was during your Sgt. Pepper period. There’s breakthrough animation
going on here, kind of like Gollum artwork on steroids. The actors went through all the nuanced
motions of their characters, especially facial expressions, in front of a blue screen while plastered
from head to toe with motion sensors. It was probably like having a hundred and three
simultaneous EKG’s while your brother-in-law shoots you with his new digital video camera and
keeps shouting at you to act naturally. The actors’ movements were digitized and transferred to
computers, on which the whole movie was then created.

It’s a dazzler, a classic journey of belief. During a scene that involved a plot-critical gift from
Santa to Hero Boy, I looked over at Parker and saw what you always hope to find in your
children at the holidays: wide-open eyes, wide-open jaw, wide-open heart. I believe he was
having a good time.

As we walked down Solano Avenue after the movie, I asked Parker if he wanted to see it again.
Based on his response, I believe we will.

Life Is a Movie