Looking back at… The Polar Express (Alan Silvestri) – Score review

The decade of the 2000s was something of a golden age for cinematic, movie, and film technology, with directors like Peter Jackson, James Cameron, and Robert Zemeckis taking an active role in the development and deployment of all sorts of brand new tech. Motion capture was one of the key developments of that time period and while the technique was not new by any means, the 2000s saw a boom in the growth and maturation of the now ubiquitous technique. Robert Zemeckis’ 2004 animated feature ‘The Polar Express’ was essentially a large-scale, feature-length experiment that pushed the boundaries of mo-cap even if in animation it was not quite ready for prime-time.

As forward-thinking and progressive as the technology behind The Polar Express was, the film itself was definitely more traditional, child-friendly holiday fare. The story of a boy who is whisked away on a locomotive heading towards the north pole to meet Santa is an enduringly popular one, with the short children’s illustrated book commonly considered a Christmas classic. Zemeckis was clearly aiming for the film to be the next great Christmas movie classic as it bears all of the traditional holiday hallmarks other modern classics like Elf and The Santa Clause while even incorporating some aspects of Home Alone like an exceedingly warm tone and cinematography, themes of ‘believing in Christmas’ or something similar, a focus on child-like wonder, etc…

Along for the ride was film composer Alan Silvestri, Zemeckis’ longtime collaborator. Silvestri gave The Polar Express a traditional, large-scale orchestral score, choosing not to go outside the norm with regards to instrumentation and tone when it comes to holiday movies of this type. In short, there is no mistaking that this is definitely a Christmas score through and through, replete with all the twinkly percussion, effervescent warmth and positivity, and quotes of Christmas carols typical of these affairs. What put this score over the top for many and made it an enduring classic was Silvestri’s fantastic, memorable themes coupled with an unbridled energy not seen since the likes of John Williams’ Home Alone.

Silvestri’s score was an instant hit with movie-going audiences and critics and remains popular. On the commercial album, Silvestri’s score contributions are limited to just three spectacular cues. First up is “Spirit of the Season”, a festive carol of Silvestri’s making which presents the instantly recognisable, propulsive main theme. This is just one of the many themes which people were humming after exiting the theatre. Up next is “Seeing is Believing” which is actually a cut and combination of two musical cues from the film. After presenting a new mysterious, magical theme with twinkling percussion, Silvestri piles on the weight with soaring strings, horns and epic choir. While after that point the actual musical cue goes on to become a rollicking action track, on album it is cut off after a minute and a half as another action cue from near the end of the film is tracked in. This second half of “Seeing is Believing” is a breathless, dazzling cue which gives way to some fast-paced, full-throated orchestral performances of three Christmas carols including “Deck the Halls” and “Jingle Bells”.

The final solo Silvestri contribution on album comes in the form of a long-form suite which closes out the album in a suitably festive manner. This cue serves as a representation of all of Silvestri’s main themes from the film, including the incredibly memorable “Believe” theme, the “Polar Express” theme, the theme from “When Christmas Comes to Town”, perhaps the most gorgeous moment on the album, and the afore-mentioned “Spirit of the Season” theme. A spectacular, warm, magical way to end the album and the score.

Unfortunately, the score’s poor representation (only three cues) on the officially released album immediately sent collectors to the secondary market. Multiple bootlegs, variations of the complete recording sessions, and one legitimate promo flooded the market soon thereafter. The bootlegs and especially recording sessions all had egregious audio and volume issues, severely limiting enjoyment of the music. Unfortunately, both the official album and the 30-minute “For Your Consideration” promo woefully under-represent the score on the whole, leaving no adequate legal means of hearing or obtaining a more complete representation outside of viewing the film.

The score was also not without a few issues. One listen to the complete score and you will notice how repetitive it gets rather quickly. You will tire of hearing the same or similar variations on the “Believe” theme repeated ad nauseam, though this problem is mainly limited to the early portions of the score. Also, in the complete score there are a plethora of 15-60 second cues and many more very short cues, which take one out of the listening experience somewhat with so many stops and starts. And while there are also some very derivative moment in the score, these minor problems are far outweighed by the strength of the score on the whole.

While there are a plethora of shorter cues on the album, which some mixing and re-arranging an absolutely stellar 45 to 50-minute album could be possible. While the suite and the promotional release cues are stellar and contain all of the original themes, there is some spectacular material not publicly available in any legal form, and this is a shame. Highlights include the ‘Cracking Ice’ action music from the absurd scene which sees the locomotive careening untethered to a track across a sea of ice as the characters comically course-correct to get to the other side; the full version of “Seeing is Believing”, and the absolutely exciting, soaring “The Giant Bag” cue which plays when the children get into some trouble as Santa’s giant bag of gifts is revealed towards the finale of the film. The soft dramatic music at the movie’s conclusion is also sorely missed.

Silvestri truly created one of his finest scores and one of the best holiday scores in modern history with The Polar Express. Dramatic, exciting, and tense while also at turns gorgeous and full of holiday cheer, this is a score not to be missed. Seek out the commercial album if you want to hear some of the highlights. Seek out the high-priced promotional album is you are a die-hard fan of Silvestri and/or holiday scores and want to hear some of the best the sub-genre has to offer. Hopefully one day we will get a proper score album release.

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