The Polar Express
Director : Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay : Robert Zemeckis & William Broyles, Jr. (based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Tom Hanks (Hero Boy / Father / Conductor / Hobo / Santa Claus), Nona Gaye (Hero Girl), Peter Scolari (Lonely Boy), Eddie Deezen (Know-It-All), Leslie Zemeckis (Sister Sarah / Mother), Michael Jeter (Smokey / Steamer)
The Polar Express is a deeply confused Hollywood rendering of childhood innocence by way of computer-generated roller-coaster thrills. With Chris Van Allsburg’s short, gorgeously illustrated children’s book as its source, Robert Zemeckis’ $165-million CGI extravaganza at first seems like it will be a quaint, if technologically savvy ode to painterly beauty, but soon turns into a series of blockbuster-style adrenaline rushes. The film’s entire middle section is a cavalcade of white-knuckle child endangerment, as the mystical Polar Express nearly derails, crashes, or flies out of control on its way to the North Pole.
Riding aboard the train is a group of children who will get to see Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. The protagonist is a young boy (voiced by Spy Kid Daryl Sabara) who has lost his faith in “Mr. C”; his willful doubt is so intense that he maintains a personal file of “evidence” against the existence of Santa, including newspaper clippings of department store Santas on strike. There other children along for the ride include a young African American girl (Nona Gaye) with a sense of natural leadership and a lonely boy who is literally from the wrong side of the tracks (Peter Scolari). There is also a bespectacled know-it-all (Eddie Deezen) who is, I supposed, intended to be comic relief, but is so obnoxious and whose voice is so relentlessly grating (especially in how it doesn’t sound like a child at all) that you keep hoping the filmmakers will forget he’s aboard.
Director Robert Zemeckis has been touting The Polar Express as a major technological breakthrough in computer-generated imagery. The biggest development is so-called “performance capture,” which involves actors (notably Tom Hanks, who plays five roles) performing while covered with computer-readable dots that translate their motions, right down to their facial twitches, into digitized imagery. In the 10 years since the release of Toy Story, feature-length computer-animated films have gotten better and better, but the one hurdle they haven’t managed to leap is the replication of photorealistic humans. Zemeckis would have us believe that The Polar Express has not only cleared this hurdle, but sprinted quite a ways further down the track. It hasn’t.
For every bit of painterly beauty Zemeckis and his technical crew have achieved in the environments in The Polar Express, the film is literally sunk by the uncanny creepiness of its computer-generated characters. Performance capture may give these simulacra a more realistic sense of movement than we’ve seen before, but they still look like wax figures come to life—all surface and no interior. Computers can recreate on-screen the finest textures of hair, fabric, and snow with amazing precision, but they are still unable to breathe life into human beings. Thus, Zemeckis’ misguided ambition of proving that technology can replace humanness on-screen is the film’s downfall, both visually and spiritually. If he had allowed real actors to appear among the computer-generated landscapes like Kerry Conran did in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or if he had given the animated characters a bit of a cartoonish appearance, just enough to push them fully into the realm of the imaginary, it might have worked. Instead, his CGI recreations fall into a strange netherworld between the believable and the unbelievable, the real and the animated. They’re neither here nor there, which is the source of their unsettling creepiness.
It is all the more unfortunate because the digital animators have done such a wondrous job of creating breath-catching widescreen vistas. The film’s opening scene when the Polar Express arrives outside the young boy’s house in a cloud of steam that slowly evaporates to reveal the shiny mechanistic wonder is a genuine marvel, and the film is also graced with a number of subtle touches that can probably only be appreciated with multiple viewings. Zemeckis, who has never met an impossible camera movement he didn’t love, gives us swooping, vertiginous shots that almost make your head spin, particularly an amusingly drawn out scene where a crucial golden ticket blows out the window of the train and makes an incredible journey through the air, under the feet of a pack of wolves, down a waterfall, and even into an eagle’s nest before miraculously finding its ways back to the train, all in one shot.
Zemeckis also gives The Polar Express some intriguingly bizarre flourishes, including Santa’s elves who sound like New Jersey mobsters by way of a horror movie and whose ranks include an elvish version of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. The mechanics of Santa’s North Pole cityscape evoke both old-world Europe and Metropolis-style science fiction, and Santa himself is a strange reinvention, serious, brightly glowing, and not nearly as portly as we’re used to. It makes one wonder if Zemeckis and cowriter William Broyles, Jr. at some point realized the flimsiness of turning a 32-page picture book into a feature-length movie and found themselves striving to inject it with something more than high-speed thrills and pastoral nostalgia for a time gone by. The result is resolutely uneven, and if The Polar Express is remembered as anything, it will be as one those films that fumbled in reaching past what its technology could allow.
Addendum: Several weeks after writing and posting this initial review, I saw The Polar Express in 3-D at the IMAX. While it did not change my opinion of the film itself (in fact, a second viewing only accentuated the film’s weaknesses), I felt compelled to add to this review that it makes for one of the most technically impressive 3-D experiences I’ve ever witnessed. The depth and realism of the image is quite amazing, and the film’s relentless roller-coaster thrills play very well in the three-dimensional, big-format environment. At best, I can say that The Polar Express is not a very good film, but it’s a fantastic theme-park ride.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Warner Bros.