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THE POLAR EXPRESS – Alan Silvestri

November 12, 2004 Leave a comment Go to comments

polarexpressOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

A film surely destined to be a future Christmas classic, Robert Zemeckis’s film version of Chris Von Allsberg’s children’s tale The Polar Express is one of the most anticipated films of late 2004. Using the revolutionary “motion capture” technique that brought Gollum to life in Lord of the Rings, state-of-the-art animation, and featuring Tom Hanks in a number of vocal roles, The Polar Express brings to life the adventures of a nameless little boy who has come to believe that Santa Claus does not exist. However, late on Christmas Eve night, while the boy is lying in bed listening for the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof, he is amazed to discover a steam engine pulling up outside his bedroom window. The cantankerous but kindly conductor invites the boy on board to accompany several other children on a magical journey to prove that Santa does exist, and that the spirit of the season is alive and well in those who still believe.

Continuing with the most fruitful directorial collaboration of his career, Alan Silvestri caps off a stellar year with one of the best outright scores of his career. Three cuts of Silvestri’s score – “Spirit of the Season”, “Seeing is Believing” and “Suite from The Polar Express” – appear on the Warner album, amounting to just over 12 minutes of orchestral music. I’m a sucker for Christmas music, and all the wonderful clichés it brings: soaring brasses, magical strings, choirs, chimes and sleigh bells, and that overall sense of warmth and whimsy. Scores like Williams’s Home Alone, Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands and Bruce Broughton’s Miracle on 34th Street have it, and so does The Polar Express.

“Spirit of the Season” is Silvestri’s own original Christmas carol, a kindred spirit to John Williams’s “Star of Bethlehem”, with a soaring mixed-voice choir singing festive lyrics over a stirring, twinkly orchestral anthem which receives a rapturous, string-led refrain towards the end of the cue. “Seeing is Believing” builds from a mysterious, Elfmanesque celeste opening and a bold rhythmic middle section into enormous full-orchestral renditions of both ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Deck The Halls’, before concluding with a lush rendition of the lovely “Believe” theme (the basis of the Josh Groban song of the same name).

The six-minute suite acts as an all-encompassing round-up of the score’s main themes, from another version of the “Believe” theme (this time with a full choir, which makes it sound even more like Edward Scissorhands); to the bold and jazzy “Polar Express” theme, with its rousing, caper-like effervescence and echoes of Roger Rabbit; the light, childlike orchestral version of “When Christmas Comes To Town”; and a second, sumptuous performance of “Spirit of the Season” without lyrics.

The problem is not really to do with Silvestri’s score, or the excellence of the musical aspect of the songs, but with Glen Ballard’s lyrics, and with the vocal performance of Tom Hanks. Ballard, a multi-award-winning songwriter and producer from Mississippi who has had a slew of successes with artists from Michael Jackson to Aerosmith, has contributed some of the most banal lyrics for a movie song in recent memory, and his work brings Silvestri’s efforts down. Other than the lyrics, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with the songs exactly: “The Polar Express” is fun enough, and I fully expect the Josh Groban song “Believe” to be Oscar nominated – but there is just something about them which makes me roll my eyes in disappointment when I expected to be grinning with pleasure.

As far as Hanks is concerned, however, the problem is obvious: he can’t sing. His vocal performances on “The Polar Express” and “Hot Chocolate” veer from little more than rhythmic talking on the former, to something approaching a bizarre cross between Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Durante impression during the latter. “When Christmas Comes To Town” sounds like a song that would appear in a South Park spoof, and it just a little too sincere, and the less said about Steve Tyler’s horrible “Rockin’ On Top of the World” the better…

The album is padded out with a bevy of Christmas mainstays by the likes of Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and The Andrews Sisters. While these songs are, quite rightly, considered classics in their own right, their inclusion here – at the expense of Silvestri’s score – seems a little redundant. I mean, how many more recordings of “White Christmas” does the world need?

I’m actually rather torn about how to best sum up this album. The score tracks, and the orchestral accompaniment to the songs, are utterly spectacular, and had this album been made up solely of Silvestri’s score (with one or two of his songs) it would have easily been a five-star effort. The problem really lies with the Ballard’s lyrics, the cumulative effect of which brings the rating down a touch. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh, because “Believe” is quite lovely in its own right, and as I have said repeatedly, Silvestri’s contribution to them is beyond reproach. I guess I simply would have liked more of his work, and a little less Tom Hanks and Bing Crosby.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • The Polar Express (written by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, performed by Tom Hanks) (3:35)
  • When Christmas Comes To Town (written by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, performed by Matthew Hall and Meagan Moore) (4:07)
  • Rockin’ On Top of the World (written by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, performed by Steve Tyler) (2:35)
  • Believe (written by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, performed by Josh Groban) (4:18)
  • Hot Chocolate (written by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, performed by Tom Hanks) (2:33)
  • Spirit of the Season (2:33)
  • Seeing is Believing (3:47)
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town (written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, performed by Frank Sinatra) (2:35)
  • White Christmas (written by Irving Berlin, performed by Bing Crosby) (3:05)
  • Winter Wonderland (written by Felix Bernard and Bill Smith, performed by The Andrews Sisters) (2:43)
  • It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas (written by Meredith Willson, performed by Perry Como) (2:40)
  • Silver Bells (written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, performed by Kate Smith) (2:39)
  • Here Comes Santa Claus (written by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman, performed by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters) (3:04)
  • Suite from The Polar Express (6:02)

Running Time: 46 minutes 14 seconds

Warner Music (2004)

Music composed and conducted by Alan Silvestri. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Album produced by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard.

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  1. February 6, 2017 at 5:54 am

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