Resident musicologist Max DeCurtins contemplates the American character of Christmas music, hurdy-gurdy playing hobos, and what it’s like to be a Jew watching The Polar Express in his re-view of Robert Zemeckis’s mo-cap fantasy.
As a Jew, I have a platonic fascination with all things related to Christmas. While I can’t speak for any other Jewry of the world, I think most people know that American Jews love Christmas. (We don’t love having to dip into our personal reserves of paid time off to observe our holidays while Christians never need to worry about using their personal or vacation time to observe their holidays, but that’s a matter for another re-view.) Like many American Jews, I don’t come by my Jewish heritage from both parents; I come from a mixed family. Count me among the lucky; were I ever to make aliyah to Israel, the Israeli government would consider me Jewish because my mother is Jewish, and Judaism is a religion inherited, by law, through the maternal line. I know many fellow Jews, dating back to my days as a very involved student at UCSB Hillel, who would not get the same treatment from the Israeli government because they inherited their Judaism from their fathers. Previous generations of American Jews (my mother among them) don’t necessarily find Christmas so attractive because it evokes memories of experiencing—if not outright anti-Semitic sentiment—the feeling of being different from everyone else. It’s why, to this day, my mother has never liked having a Christmas tree in the house, even though my father probably does (presuming, of course, that he can get past the $50 or $60 price tag for a Douglas Fir, which I think entirely reasonable for a few weeks of seasonal beauty in the house). And let’s not forget, of course, that Christmas is a co-opted holiday, which puts it on some questionable moral ground.
That said, something about Christmas still fascinates me. I think because—despite the WASPy assumptions about Christmas that reside in the popular imagination of Americans—the ideal Christmas world depicts a quiet, polite, family-oriented environment enveloped in pillowy snowbanks where we slow down and take the time to appreciate a seasonal change and the good things in life: elegant decorations, friendly company, good food, time not spent at work. Mind you, we find the reality of Christmas in the world located some several thousand light-years away, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a nice thing to think about.
With climate change already wreaking havoc with certain areas (and I think of my parched home state of California), this kind of seasonally indulgent Christmas seems more and more like a fantasy. And yet, I think, in some ways it proves a somewhat useful fantasy, because it holds the allure of what benefit we might derive from slowing down our lives, a benefit that we might yet attain if we could only reform ourselves, and that’s why it endures. What doesn’t, however, endure so well is The Polar Express. Ten years later, I see a movie with an impressive pedigree—Chris van Allsburg, Robert Zemeckis, Tom Hanks, Alan Silvestri—that fails to fulfill the potential greatness that these formidable talents lend their work. It’s the little engine that…almost could.
The Polar Express does a magnificent job of realizing the world of Chris van Allsburg’s book, but somehow it makes for a bizarre and sometimes creepy movie. I should say, rather, that the writers and producers (which include van Allsburg) somehow failed to create a potentially great story for a movie to tell. Americana lives at the heart of this story; set in Grand Rapids, MI, there’s a more-than-implied paean to the American manufacturing behemoth that powered middle-class jobs that enabled people like the protagonist’s parents to buy a house in the suburbs and have the vaunted one boy, one girl nuclear family. The department store that the train passes on its way out of town (bearing, by the way, a distinctly Jewish-sounding name) has a distinct place in American history, evoking a time of fewer TV channels and greater cultural homogeneity. In short, it’s the kind of America that glossed over many injustices but made for excellent nostalgia; nostalgia that the American right has taken up and twisted into irrationality.
What I can’t decide, though, is whether this story, and the movie’s interpretation of it, is, at its core, an apologist take on religion. The protagonist, ever full of doubt, constantly asks the question: “Are you sure?” This, if we read between the obviously widely-spaced lines, clearly means: Are you satisfied with the answer that God is leading you down the right path? Doubt runs deep as a theme in the movie, and I wish I could find a broader message in this theme, such as the crippling effect of doubt that goes unchecked by the belief that we can surmount whatever obstacle currently obstructs our path. If we sit on our couches, paralyzed by self-doubt and fear, we’ll never get anywhere. When Santa finally does emerge, the protagonist has to make a leap of faith before he can hear the bell ring, but the leap of faith isn’t necessarily in service of anything. Belief offers us some help when it comes time to make important decisions: whether to take that job and move to a different city or country, whether to invest money into something, whether to have a baby despite a slight risk of some inheritable issue. These things all benefit from a leap of faith telling us that, after doing as much homework as we possibly can, our decisions will turn out all right in the end. This, I think, could have been a wonderfully useful message to emerge from the movie. Alas, The Polar Express never projects this message beyond a religious mapping; belief in Santa seems to be the beginning and the end of the protagonist’s journey.
I mentioned that the movie, though adapted from a classic children’s book, also comes off as bizarre and, at times, rather creepy. The hurdy-gurdy-“Good King Wenceslaus”-playing hobo appears at various points throughout the film, helping the protagonist avoid danger and saving him from near-disaster, but that doesn’t make his character any less creepy. And Santa’s city at the North Pole had me thinking more of the Overlook Hotel than of Christmas Town. I can imagine few things creepier than a track of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” skipping and echoing throughout a cavernous empty space, as happens when the three children—who don’t even seem to like each other all that much—get out of the caboose and start making their way back to the square. All of these things tie back to the central issue of doubt with which the protagonist struggles, of course, but even in context they seem like creepy ways to depict doubt.
Just as The Polar Express strains against a limited storyline, so too does the visual rendering display its limitations. For all the rich detailing in the landscapes and architecture, the characters themselves display remarkably poor rendering, which might seem like a natural quirk of history given that CGI movies have existed for less than twenty years, but even in 2004 we had already had two Star Wars prequels, all of the Lord of the Rings films, andPirates of the Caribbean, among other specimens featuring well-executed CGI work. It seems to me that Sony would have done better to have contracted the animation to a studio more experienced than Imageworks, at least with regard to mo-cap work.
The voice characterizations fare far better, demonstrating once again that Tom Hanks, who plays what seems like half the characters in the movie, is an indefatigable badass. The elves’ voices in particular inject much-needed levity to counteract the creepiness of their characters’ graphics. The mixture of Jersey and New York accents for the elves on the ground and the British accent for the elves piloting the blimp craft that hauls Santa’s bag of toys makes for a bit of Tim Burton-esque creativity that certainly helped the movie’s case through several re-views.
The Polar Express joins a long list of movies whose flagrant violations of the laws of Newtonian physics color my father’s impression of them, and not for the better. I think he sees such patently absurd mishandling of physics as symptomatic of Americans’ deplorable dearth of proficiency in science. Given that I hold similar views about Americans’ musical education, I can’t entirely blame him. Even granted that, The Polar Express still presents some flatly impossible feats of physics, which I find highly ironic given that CGI animation depends intimately on virtual objects being assigned physical properties and informed by algorithms that utilize physics in minute detail. The movie highlights such tricky aspects of CGI physics, such as the punched paper flakes wafting down from the Conductor’s hole-puncher. Some sequences—such as the tracking of the leading girl’s ticket as it flies away from the train, gets moved by wolves, regurgitated by birds, and eventually ends up back on the train—simply weigh down the movie with unnecessary diversions.
The movie does, however, feature some rather beautiful shots, and here I think specifically of the train sloughing around on the ice as it approaches the narrow gap where the tracks reappear. We get a wide-angle shot from the perspective of the upcoming tracks, and see a majestic sweep of the train’s headlight. The splash of the water as the train soars up out of the valley onto the tracks feels fairly magical, and I think CGI movies have a particular ability to capture this kind of expressive imagination in a way that live action movies don’t. To further emphasize the emotional peak we’ve just reached, the orchestra lets loose with a full tutti. And speaking of the score…
American-ness also finds itself woven throughout the score. The score for The Polar Express, where it doesn’t rely on Christmas songs composed in the first half of the twentieth century, takes a fair amount of inspiration from two Russian composers, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. In places I hear resemblances to The Nutcracker, though I couldn’t say exactly where, as about three-quarters of the ballet never makes it into recordings of the work. Elsewhere, I hear references to Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet, particularly the closing sequence in which the palace of Kashchei disappears. I think a majority of the American public remains incredibly unaware of just how recently their musical idea of Christmas came into being. Our great-grandparents’ generation did not know The Nutcracker; it did not premiere in the United States until 1944, in San Francisco. Rightly or wrongly, The Nutcracker provides for a significant portion of the operating budget of most ballet companies in the United States, just as Christmas shopping provides a significant portion of annual revenue for many retailers, and I think to most Americans, The Nutcracker is Christmas. It certainly explains why the music for most every Christmas movie references The Nutcracker in some way. Christmas music, whether in the form of ballet, carols, or other types of pops orchestral music, seems to occupy its own sonic space, and somehow, no matter the composer, it still ends up sounding like Christmas music.
Alan Silvestri sounds curiously like himself in this score, and the score itself bears some interesting resemblances to the score for Back to the Future, perhaps Silvestri’s best-known work: the little runs of scales in the harp and the celesta that introduce a longer passage of music, for example. And as much as some of the orchestration and thematic elements borrow from Russian music, another influence makes itself very much felt throughout the score, that of Aaron Copland. Aaron Copland—a Jew from New York who composed mostly avant-garde music—has come to represent American-ness in “classical” music, largely on the basis of hisRodeo Dances. This musical ideal took form at the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, not long after 9/11, when we needed to express national solidarity. These days, this music most often sees performance by pops orchestras, tainted, perhaps, by its associations with what many musicians and music historians have come to see as a political-cultural agenda. Though I don’t feel like The Polar Express pushes such an agenda, its score and Copland’s music do share one element in common: widespread use of the clarinet.
The clarinet has always struck me as a particularly “American” sound. It features prominently in Copland’s well-known ballet and orchestral suite Appalachian Spring. Without getting too subjective—if that’s possible when talking about music—the sound of the clarinet evokes youth, simplicity, and wonderment. Having a cylindrical air column, as the flute does as well, the clarinet produces a uniquely plaintive and sometimes child-like tone, unlike the incisive and complex sound of the oboe, which has a conical air column. Americans didn’t invent the clarinet, of course; the Europeans did, but Americans found new uses for it in jazz and blues. The score for The Polar Express closely allies the clarinet with Billy, the boy from the poor end of town who must find new friends to help him navigate unexpected challenges.
While I don’t care for any of the songs composed for the film (as opposed to the iconic Christmas songs recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby), I do think the score overall counts as one of the better aspects of The Polar Express. Like the story and the animation, it too is not without its flaws and limitations. To me, the movie stands as a classic example of a film that held a lot of promise, and maybe even proved memorable in some ways, but that otherwise fell short of its potential.