Review: The Polar Express (2004)

Composer: Alan Silvestri (songs written by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard)

Label: Warner Sunse/Reprise

Catalogue Nr.: 48897 2

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The silver screen adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's children novel The Polar Express about a young nameless boy with growing disbelieve in Santa Clause going on a magnificent journey to north pole in a mysterious train can be considered as one of the most ambitious projects of director Robert Zemeckis. Allsburg's original novel was full of stunning drawings and artwork which ultimately was too much of a costly challenge to realize with traditional methods of filming. Instead, technology freak Zemeckis went for a groundbreaking new way of computer animation called performance capturing, allowing him to digitally record the performance of the actors (in this case mainly Tom Hanks, who would perform most of the major roles himself) and fusing that data with a digital character who is then re-performing in an entirely CG environment. Although the visual experience that one has while watching the film is probably unequalled (yet!), the new technology certainly wasn't without flaws. Most critics jumped right at the 'dead-eye' syndrome which, despite all the realism in the visuals, caused the characters to look like lifeless puppets which makes it hard, if not impossible, to connect with them on an emotional level. But Zemeckis' faith in the technology would remain unbroken. A strong box office performance of The Polar Express (thanks to the revolutionary simultaneous release in regular and Imax 3-D theatres) now leads to another performance capture Zemeckis film in 2007, the adaptation of the ancient English epic Beowulf... reportedly with equally stunning visuals but without dead-eyes.

The score:

Zemeckis' composer of choice Alan Silvestri already has provided solid scores to a couple of animated movies such as Ferngully The Last Rainforest (1992) or Disney's surprise hit Lilo & Stitch (2002) when signing on to score The Polar Express but none of these scores even comes close to what the composer was about to pen for his long time friend's animated Christmas epic. For a Zemeckis film Silvestri always seems to do more, going beyond the routine to provide the visuals with music that fully sparkles and thus The Polar Express was suited with the best Christmas score of the new millennium's first decade. However, Silvestri not only composed the score but also created a couple of songs together with his friend Glen Ballard and cleverly embedded their melodies into his underscore which gives the film the flair of a classic Christmas musical. Their nostalgically romantic ballad "Believe" performed by Josh Groban which carries Silvestri's main theme was awarded with a Grammy in the category 'Best Song Written For Motion Picture' and further garnered nominations for an Academy Award and Golden Globe award. Strangely, Silvestri's score itself remained unawarded and also did not receive one single nomination which is odd because it is this music that is easily the greatest aspect of the film. Maybe it's because history repeated itself when it became clear that no score-only album of his music would be released, adding The Polar Express to the long list of great but officially unreleased Silvestri scores. Only a relatively short Academy promo of his score is available.

The original soundtrack release offers every original song as composed by Silvestri and Ballard totalling up to roughly 17 minutes of original song material while there are only two tracks of Silvestri's score totalling up to not even 10 minutes, so the total amount of original material as written for the film does not even reach half an hour and clocks in at only barely 27 minutes. A real tragedy is that instead of more score, a mere 20 minutes of space was devoted to schmaltzy Christmas pop songs by the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, etc... etc. You know, the kind of stuff that already filled endless amounts of schmaltzy Christmas song compilations for decades and certainly does not have any right of existence on an album that calls itself 'The Polar Express - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack'. These songs only appear in the film as mere elevator music from some speakers in north pole town and have obviously been sneaked in there for marketing purposes. They are nowhere near half important as the underscore was and the film could have easily worked without them. It's as if some music executive said: 'hey, we don't have enough pop songs in that movie to make a compilation CD, so let's just force Bing Crosby into this somehow'. The terrible Steven Tyler song 'Rocking On Top Of The World' clearly belongs to that marketing category as well because Tyler was hired relatively late in the game to do that song for the finale north pole celebration party which only lasts for a couple of seconds.

With such a strategy they avoided to pay enormous re-use fees for additional score selections (Polar Express was recorded in early September 2004 and thus was among the last big scores that did not benefit from the reduced re-use fees deal that would have applied only one year later) and had an album that was predestined to climb the charts. Now let's look at the barely 27 minutes of original material that is featured on this album. The selection is launched by "The Polar Express" which starts quite neat with the steam noises of the train forming the rhythmic basis of the piece. Silvestri's jaunty theme for the train itself sung by a children choir soon starts to play after some vocal performances of Tom Hanks as The Conductor. Hanks hopeless attempts at singing are forgettable because they remind me more of a bad Duffy Duck impersonation than anything else and only spoil the fun of Silvestri's happy tune which neatly combines the comic energy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) with some neat lyrics by Glen Ballard. A song with true Christmas classic potential is lovely and warm "When Christmas Comes To Town", performed as an excellent, soft duet by Mathew Hall and Meagan Moore. Silvestri introduces the song on gentle, heavenly choir which is in a way comparable to the first choral moments of "Bud On The Ledge" from The Abyss (1989) though in a much softer fashion. The wistful tune that is heard in the song is Silvestri's theme for a shy and lonely poor man's boy who also travels in the polar express but which much less hope in the wake of some terrible Christmas disappointments.

Skipping the annoying Steven Tyler failure will bring us right to the chart hit "Believe" performed by Josh Groban. The performer does Silvestri's main theme melody and Ballard's lyrics justice with his remarkable voice backed up by a gentle orchestral accompaniment and some very careful pop percussion. I will probably never understand the AMPAS decision to give the Oscar for best song to something as easily forgettable as Jorge Drexler's "Al Otro Lado Del Rio" from The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) when they had a clear Christmas classic such as "Believe" right in front of them. Another example that an Oscar is worth less than nothing when it comes to music. "Hot Chocolate" is a quite cool jazz song with an elegant, fast-paced twitch-bass performance and a big band sound that probably bears the strongest resemblance to Silvestri's earlier jazz masterpiece Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). It's the only song that does not resemble any of Silvestri's themes and just accompanies a weird dance number in the film. Just like with "The Polar Express" I wish I could just erase Tom Hanks' disturbing performance from an otherwise enjoyable recording. If you enjoy powerful choral Christmas beauty as John Williams crafted it for the Home Alone movies you are going to love "Spirit Of The Season". In a way, this is neither pure score nor a true song but definitely a testament of Silvestri's excellent handling of the choir and orchestra. The composition is rousing with fanfares and choir blasting out Silvestri's celebration-theme which was largely unused in the final film, so "Spirit of the Season" was probably a re-arrangement Silvestri made of his theme specifically for inclusion on the album.

Last but not least comes the two score tracks. Actually, only "Seeing Is Believing" contains pure underscore while "Suite from the Polar Express" is the big end credits suite of the movie that was spliced in pieces to put some of the original songs in between. "Seeing Is Believing" starts with a statement of Silvestri's doubts-theme. It's a dark composition starting with celesta and glockenspiel and then going into a large outburst for dark male choir and grim horn fanfares that musically represent the hero boy's doubts in Santa Claus' existence or his general doubts in any of the otherworldly magic that happens on the train. The second half of the cue comes right from the pompous finale which starts with a slow horn and brass build-up of Silvestri's celebration-theme along with some percussion rumbling as Santa Clause is preparing his skit for take-off. The build-up dramatically develops into a rousing full orchestral and choral medley of "Deck The Halls" and "Jingle Bells" when Santa finally takes flight and a statement of Silvestri's own main theme melody forms an epic resolution. This is one of the coolest, greatest moments of Christmas scoring ever. The suite sums up the most important themes from the score with big statements, starting with the main theme on a big, heavenly choral performance followed by the train theme, the lonely boy's theme and the rousing celebration-theme again for big choir. Not a big orchestral blast follows the choir as the coda of the piece but a gentle rendition of the main theme on celesta closed by strings dying away. 

Review by Andreas Creutzburg

 

RATING:

Original Songs as heard in the film: 89%

Original Songs as heard on CD: 85%

Score as heard in the film: 94%

Score as heard on CD: 93%

TOTAL: 91%

 

The presentation:

How come that all of Silvestri's classic scores become victims of over-commercialised marketing? The presentation by Warner Sunset/Reprise is bellow weak... and the fact that there are not even 10 minutes of original score makes this statement almost look like a compliment. Maybe I should call it by name: The presentation of the score sucks! Instead of Silvestri's Christmas classic we got another sampler of worn-out Christmas songs that you can get in each CD store for a buck or two. And the inclusion of posters and other dust-collectors is hardly a compensation for the lack of score material. It is another major film music injustice. History apparently repeated itself and The Polar Express joins excellent but unreleased Silvestri classics such as Back To The Future (1985), The Bodyguard (1992), Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Box (1999) or Stuart Little (1999). Shame on Warner for this travesty that calls itself Original Motion Picture Soundtrack!

Presentation by the Label: 12%

 

Summary:

Alan Silvestri's score for The Polar Express was not only the best of 2004 but can be considered a classic Christmas score in the long run. The absence of score material on the CD should be an embarrassment for those responsible for the production of this package. The only legal way for us film music fans to enjoy the entire score is to watch the film where the music is drown in heavy sfx or finding a copy of the insanely rare academy promo (which sadly isn't complete either). Once again, this is an inexcusable situation very much like the terrible soundtrack album of Back To The Future (1985). If you want to enjoy the full range of genius Christmas music that Silvestri created for the film you should try to get both the promo for the score and the official album as a supplementation with the songs, the suite and the celebration finale score music in "Seeing Is Believing" (which is not featured on the promo). You can then edit a perfect Polar Express Soundtrack CD that solely consists of pure Silvestri magic without any Bing Crosby or Steven Tyler ruining the experience. Don't hesitate to do that only because the promo is rare because otherwise you will be missing one of the best scores in recent years.

 

Tracklisting:

01. The Polar Express perf. by Tom Hanks (03:25) **

02. When Christmas Comes To Town perf. by Matthew Hall & Megan Moore (04:07) **

03. Rockin' On Top Of The World perf. by Steven Tyler (02:35)

04. Believe perf. by Josh Groban (04:18) **

05. Hot Chocolate perf. by Tom Hanks (02:33) **

06. Spirit Of The Season (02:33) **

07. Seeing Is Believing (03:47) *

08. Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town perf. by Frank Sinatra (02:35)

09. White Christmas perf. by Bing Crosby (03:05)

10. Winter Wonderland perf. by The Andrews Sisters (02:43)

11. It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas perf. by Perry Como And The Fontane Sisters (02:40)

12. Silver Bells perf. by Kate Smith (02:39)

13. Here Comes Santa Claus perf. by Bing Crosby (03:04)

14. Suite From The Polar Express (06:02) *

*  Original Motion Picture Score by Alan Silvestri (total: 9:49)

** Original Song by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard (total: 16:58)