Review: “The Polar Express”
Produced by: Robert Zemeckis, Gary Goetzman, Steve Starkey, William Teller
Written by: Robert Zemeckis, William Broyles, Jr. (screenplay)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Chantel Valdivieso
Music by: Alan Silvestri (score), Glen Ballard (lyrics)
Based on: The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
The Polar Express… What a divisive film this has been. Look at its ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, and it looks as though it’s almost torn down the middle as to how many people actually liked this film. Many marveled at its technical wizardry, while on the other end of the spectrum others were left disturbed by the character models and their “dead” or “doll-like” eyes.
The film was Robert Zemeckis’ return to animation after 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which itself remains a classic and marvel in its own right, having convincingly placed classic hand-drawn cartoon characters from a broad range of companies into a living breathing world where “toons” and humans lived side by side. With The Polar Express, Zemeckis seemingly went backward with this style, using motion capture technology to record live action performances and integrating them into an animated world. It was a technique Zemeckis would grow to love, apparently, as he would reuse this technique for his next two films, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, as well as collaborating as executive producer on Monster House.
The resulting film is, indeed, a technical marvel, but not necessarily for the human characters or the motion capture technology. At times, the film is almost painterly in quality to it, as if the animators had scanned some beautiful paintings at a high resolution and applied them as textures to some carefully sculpted polygonal models. And, yes, I guess, from a distance, some of the human characters even fleetingly look so human that it nearly had be believing, but… Well, am I getting too technical here? Perhaps I am, but there’s really not much else to talk about with this film. There’s certainly no harm in being a technical marvel, but did they really have to skimp so much on everything else?
It’s not even that the storyline is bad. The movie itself isn’t even bad, it just seems so focused on the technical aspects of everything that Zemeckis and co-writer Broyles were unable to expand the storybook’s story beyond the beloved but short children’s book. Having not grown up with any memories of this book (which is sad, I’m sure many of you would say, and I do not deny this), I cannot personally account for the film’s faithfulness to the content, spirit, or even general looks with the book.
All I can say is that, yes, this film does feel like it’s padding out what I imagine to be a simple, gentle, and stirring account of childlike faith in the spirit and joyfulness of Christmas with excesses like treacly and/or goofy songs (complete with a cameo appearance by, of all people, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler as an elf!), a whole lot of 3D action (as it was the first widely released 3D IMAX film to be released simultaneously with its 2D counterpart, so you know where the blame lies for that sort of thinking, as well), and a general overcasting of Hollywood excess.
Did you know that Tom Hanks performs an Eddie-Murphy-level six roles here, including the motion captured acting (but not the voice acting) of the film’s child-aged main character?! It’s not that it’s jarring – he does a good job of performing as a child and has done so before in the fantastic Big, and since he is supposed to be narrating as the adult version of the “Hero Boy,” it’s funny to see how his mannerisms come out in this child. I have to give props to Zemeckis for recognizing the truly amazing potential in this technology: enabling actors to play life-like characters that they, aside from looks and/or age, they were meant to play.
Of course, he wasn’t the only one, nor the first, as Peter Jackson and his crew did the same a couple years prior in The Lord of the Rings, where Gollum was similarly realized through Andy Serkis’ truly amazing captured performance — and that was in a live action film, no less! Still, props, all around for having the same, visionary ideas around the same time. Bravo. Still doesn’t keep the film from feeling like Hollywood excess, and the characters of The Polar Express feel far less lifelike than Gollum. That would have been fine if they hadn’t actually, seemingly aimed for realism in this imagined world, but they did, and in their attempt they tripped and fell into the uncanny valley and gave us with some sincerely odd-looking characters that truly illustrate the distinction between “awe” and “AHHH!”
I am, perhaps, more cynically minded when it comes to these things. Perhaps I am one of the ones who can’t hear the Christmas bells ringing. The film has since gone on to become a Christmas classic… somehow. The core story, lifted from the book, is still present, and there are truly moments that stand out emotionally, such as when the hero is struggling to see Santa’s big reveal (Big deal, so he looks and sounds like Tom Hanks and the Conductor, and the father, and the…) and listen to the sleigh bells. The last few lines are also apparently lifted from the book and gracefully read by Tom Hanks.
What I’m saying is that you and your family may enjoy this film more than I did. I merely admired its ambition from afar without any real hope of ever feeling like I could get on the train. Like most other Christmas films, it has, at its core, a good message about the so-called spirit of Christmas, and it even manages to illustrate how gifts can be more than just things if they are given for a reason and with a joyful heart. And, again, much of the film does look truly wonderful. If that is enough for you, then by all means, watch this film and enjoy. I, however, could not get past the technology.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2.5 / 5