Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express seems to have people pretty polarized, even some 17 years after its release. In some circles, it’s probably considered a holiday classic, and could be seen as understandable, seeing as its imagery is singular (there is also Polar Express-themed celebrations and such). Yet the film was met with a lukewarm reception during its initial release and the quality of the overall film is still somewhat up for debate. I hadn’t seen it in probably 15 years, so it seemed like an ample time to give it another whirl. I see The Polar Express as an interesting experiment; a film that is undeniably ambitious and at times marvelous, but it also hasn’t fully passed the test of time and even at 95 minutes, it can feel a tad thin.
So of course the big hooplah surrounding this film at the time was the technology behind it. Following Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis released a trio of animated features that featured motion capture technology as a substitute for animation. So picture the technology used to make Gollum come to life, but an entire movie of it. The Polar Express was the first, with the perhaps equally divisive Beowulf and A Christmas Carol to follow it. I revisited A Christmas Carol last year and it mostly held up; I’ve always admired the intentional creepiness of it and most of it (give or take an image or two) looks gorgeous. There is beautiful imagery in The Polar Express too, but it loses me with the children.
Growing up, I owned a PS2, and at the time it was great. I was always impressed by the graphics and what not. My nephew has recently gotten into it too, and luckily he doesn’t notice the difference. But now that I’m the owner of an Xbox One, I’ve seen just how far technology has come. So of course the PS2 was impressive in its day, but by comparison it comes across as more of a “nice try.” I felt a similar way watching The Polar Express. In 2004, this would’ve looked great. In fact, I’ll say that the images, from the scenery to the action sequences, are still decently marvelous. In terms of the actual characters though, the children in this film gave me the creeps. They definitely have a PS2 vibe to them, but honestly staring them in the face gives off the feeling that they’re going to suck out your soul, and while I admire the craftsmanship and the effort, it’s a little distracting.
Turning a perhaps 40 page picture book into a feature length movie is perhaps a tricky move, and Zemeckis does what he can. For a while, it’s good fun… until you realize there’s still 30 minutes left. Anyways, the movie, based on the classic Chris Van Allsburg book, follows a boy who wakes up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve to find a train in his backyard. The conductor of the train (Tom Hanks, playing multiple roles) tells the boy that the train is headed to the North Pole. So he hops aboard and is taken for an adventure and there’s a lesson about belief and what not.
The movie is purely spectacle driven. I particularly like some of the action sequences and sure, because this is based on a 50 page book, it’s just filler. But it’s cool enough filler. The landscapes in this movie are gorgeous too. But by golly, the children’s faces in this movie give me the willies. Which is unfortunate because you spend an entire movie with them. Perhaps in 2004 our eyes were so dazzled that we didn’t notice, but I can’t help but notice. I feel bad knocking something that was innovative at the time. But I mean, a movie like Jaws has passed the test of time, and this one doesn’t always. And just staring into the eyes of the nerdy kid (oh, you know the one if you’ve seen this movie) is the stuff of nightmares.
There are also times when I couldn’t tell what the film was trying to be. At about the 45 minute mark, we get a musical number from two of the kids. We sort of get one prior to this when the hot chocolate is being served, but that’s it. Just feels a little out of place. The final act also feels a bit overdone. I liked the look of the North Pole but… why the hell is Aerosmith (I’m assuming that’s what they’re supposed to be) performing there?
It’s clear that Zemeckis was setting out to deliver not just a mind blowing spectacle, but also a Christmas classic. For some, it is. For others, it’s lifeless and terrifying. I lie in the middle. Zemeckis is clearly someone to trust with millions of dollars and he’s made some truly terrific movies. The Polar Express has greatness within it, but its flaws are also pretty visible. It’s a bit uneven, and maybe the jury is still out on it, but it’s not too shabby. Just not one I’ll revisit every year.
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