By Andrew Jenck
Based on the book by O. Henry, The Polar Express has stopped by the Coliseum for the past few years. I myself remember seeing it upon its original release, so I was curious to see how it holds up now as an adult. The answer is…okay. Let me start by saying I do really like how the theater hosts this event every year. They go all in with the aesthetic by punching tickets for the kids, serving hot chocolate at the same time as the film, letting the kids show up in their PJs, and having Santa coming out at the end. Overall, it’s a great experience that I’d highly recommend for families with kids — I only wish the movie itself was as well-thought out.
While not a terrible film (well, actually parts are pretty terrible) The Polar Express is a well meaning misfire that fails on almost all fronts, trying too hard to be a Christmas classic. Created by motion capture animation (or mocap for short), this technology is often used in live action movies to add human characteristics to non-human characters, as seen with Gollum and Thanos, in The Hobbit. Actors dress in a full body suit that capture their motions (hence the name) and animators take it from there. Such technology caught the attention of one Robert Zemeckis, director of Back to the Future and Forest Gump, who would go on to direct and/or produce many fully mocap features throughout the early 2000s.
The problem with using this medium here is that you are trying to make realistic humans with actual humans, and the uncanny valley is strong in this movie. In still shots the film looks really good, as the more detailed approach allows for great scenery and the train itself comes to life really well, but the characters’ gestures and lip movements look off. Whenever the characters are talking, the mouths seem to expand unusually, almost like a rubber band. The character models also look too hard, and the hair just feels pasted on like that of a mannequin. Mocap has advanced since 2004, being used to great effect in video games, but the technology wasn’t ready at the time of this film. I know I’ve gone on a whole tangent on the visuals alone without discussing the story, but for a film that is meant to invoke a sense of wonder, the characters’ emotions are required to connect the audience with the world, but I kept being sucked out of it because of the visuals.
To be fair, even if this was traditionally animated, I wouldn’t be that invested. An earnest effort can be felt throughout the film in which the filmmakers genuinely love the source material, adapting its visual style and staying true to the general message. I appreciate how they don’t attempt to “modernize” the story and keep a more timeless feel to it (minus the creepy Steven Tyler elf). Unfortunately, they fall victim to any other film adaption of a short children’s book, trying to fill the span of 90 minutes. None of the set pieces fit in with the mysterious, whimsical tone the film opens with. These sequences could have worked had they allowed character growth, and reinforced the message of faith, but they come off as Zemeckis just wanting to show off his fancy technology to the point where they get tiring.
The book did not really have fleshed-out characters per se, opting for a more atmospheric tone and a blank slate of a character, but for a movie, there should be a little more depth. The main character is literally credited as “Hero Boy” and doesn’t have many moments to shine amidst the attempted spectacle. Even if you’re going for the blank slate angle, he should still come across as genuine. They needed more nuanced interactions with the other characters to bring the message home.
I can understand why many hold this film in high regard, as there are certain things to enjoy. Alan Silvestri’s score matched with the cinematography and gorgeous backgrounds do invoke the Season very well, and that’s the reason why families get together to watch a Christmas movie. I just wish I could hold it in the same regard, but its ambition outweigh its intent for me. Not really a lump of coal, but definitely a scratchy sweater from Grandma.