I’m not the first to look for the deeper meaning in the animated film The Polar Express. It is a wise film interspersing thoughtful conversation with high action – it would make a thrilling fast ride at a theme park. The music is also wonderful – it would also make a great musical.
Faith, and lack of it, along with the innocence and loss of childhood, are big themes, but also the general challenges of life that we experience whether child or adult. There are some key one-liners from the train conductor (Tom Hanks) – I thought one might pop up “it’s not the destination but the journey that is important” but instead, better, it’s: “it doesn’t matter where the train goes, it’s making the decision to get on it that matters.”
It is a risk for all the children to jump on the train but they do and discover aspects of themselves that they either didn’t know they had or find they needed confirmation of the qualities they did have. On the journey they are challenged, but also helped, by Doubt – the spirit of the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man who appears on and off in various parts of the train – also played by Tom Hanks.
This pairing of these two characters (conductor and spirit man) could be seen as theological – Hope (the conductor) and Doubt (the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man) are two sides of the same coin. We experience one with the other in most cases, but with friendship, empathy, and our own individual reflection, we can get through them. Three of the children become good mates – one boy struggles particularly with the concept of Christmas (we’re not given details but we assume he’s had a tricky home life, is lonely, and certainly doesn’t come from a wealthy background) but he is valued by his two friends.
Materially the children are on the search for presents but learn a great deal more about the gifts they already have within them and also what they need to learn and do to maintain hope and faith. The conductor makes a passing but key comment ‘sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.’
Holding onto the unseen is the challenge in life – the symbol of the bell in the film personifies this. Doubt says you must see to believe. Hope says you sometimes have to believe in order to understand, and to see.
Most of the comments about the film Les Miserables remark that the film is too naturalistic and ‘in your face’. A well known musical theatre performer commented that it was all rather emotional and that she would have liked it if the voices has been ‘tweaked’ a little bit in the studio after recording to make them more presentable/easy on the ear on film. Interesting. The film’s power in its use of non-edited singing: the actors are in the moment. Eddie Redmayne who plays Marius says the joy of this is that actors don’t therefore have to make their acting decisions 3 months before their character is in role.
I would also say how stange it is to talk about tweaking emotions. Do we ‘tweak’ emotions in every day life? No! If we’re about to cry we don’t say ‘now hang on a moment, let me make sure I don’t upset other people and I’ll just adjust my tears.’ What is the problem with being real? Nothing! If we are embarrassed or somehow disgusted by the rawness of this film then we’re disgusted by the reality of the human condition and even history itself. The historical facts of the French revolution are gritty and violent like any other battle. The human stories of Valjean, Fantine and all the people in the street scenes are realistic – there were such people who had lives of utter misery – some of them managed to create a better world for themselves (Valjean – though only because the Bishop gave him a second chance and Valjean acted on it), but others, due to the repression of the system and the unforgiveness of others, had no chance to move away from their wretched lives.
The only voice that is not raw and not broken is Russell Crowe’s – which suits his character, Javert. Javert becomes obsessed with hunting down Valjean purely because he is the law and there is no bending – ‘the law is not mocked’. He cannot see that Valjean does not fit into his category of right and wrong. His uncompromising nature is reflected in his smooth vocals. Any doubt Javert has (and he does doubt) is seen in his face rather than heard in his vocals.
I would therefore conclude that the naturalism of this Les Mis film works and is justified – it takes courage to face the truth because once you face it you have to engage with the world and your place in it. Once you do that – as Valjean and Fantine do, they find that their engagement with the world costs. Facing the truth is a rough ride and the events that happen to them are life changing…what would be the purpose of ‘tweaking’ their emotional response? Nothing, other than making it look like their characters are pretending and let’s face it, life is not a rehearsal and we can’t pretend our way through it. The characters in Les Mis don’t.