The Polar Express assumes the status of Christmas Classic from the get-go without even bothering to earn it. With Chris Van Allsburg’s short, gorgeously illustrated children’s book as its source material, Robert Zemeckis’ $165-million CGI extravaganza at first seems like a quaint, if technologically savvy ode to the Christmas spirit from a child’s perspective, but it soon transforms into a nonsensical, soulless, emotionally-divorced series of blockbuster-style adrenaline rushes that are presented with messy CGI.
The protagonist of this story is an average young boy (Sabara) from an average home in an average town. Everything about this boy is so bland that he is apparently not even worth a name – in the credits he’s officially listed as “Hero Boy”. Despite this character having the appearance of a 13-year-old, he’s apparently in the midst of that childhood period when one begins to lose faith in the existence of Santa. As he settles into bed on Christmas Eve night, an incredible racket has him racing downstairs where he stumbles upon, of all things, a steam locomotive pulling up in front of his house (apparently the noise doesn’t wake up his family or neighbours, mind you). The conductor (Hanks) invites the boy onboard to take a journey to the North Pole with many other pyjama-clad children. It would seem that Hero Boy’s neglectful parents didn’t teach him to avoid rides with strangers… (Seriously, what kind of message is this movie trying to send?)
Once on the train, Hero Boy has a series of adventures with the other children on their way to meet jolly St. Nick and reaffirm their belief in the spirit of Christmas. In other words, The Polar Express delivers the same feel-good message that almost every holiday movie has spoon-fed children for decades. Furthermore, upon arriving at the North Pole it becomes clear the movie is all build-up, no pay-off – Santa’s city is mostly vacant in terms of magic. The film’s theme also suggests that you better believe in Santa, or else you’re not worth it. At the North Pole, Hero Boy can get any gift he desires, and he chooses to receive a sleigh bell from Santa’s sled. Hero Boy and his sister can hear the bell ring, but his parents cannot and assume it is broken. It’s constantly underlined that only “believers” can hear the sound of the bell. *facepalm*
Director Robert Zemeckis touted The Polar Express as a major technological breakthrough in computer-generated imagery. The most significant development is the “performance capture” techniques, for which actors can perform while covered in computer-readable dots that translate their motions into digitised imagery. But the one hurdle that filmmakers have always been unable to leap for animated movies is the recreation of photorealistic humans. Zemeckis wanted us to believe The Polar Express not only cleared the hurdle, but sprinted further down the track. But it hasn’t. Not even close. The technical crew have achieved painterly beauty with the stunningly detailed environments, but the film is drastically sunk by the uncanny creepiness of the CGI characters – they look like wax figures possessed by the devil. The problem is that the technology in its current form cannot capture the human soul, thus the characters’ glassy eyes and gaping hollow mouths stand out as shockingly devoid of life. Looking at side-by-side comparisons of the live-action actors and their digitalised counterparts, one thing is obvious: the computers sap the life and intensity out of a perfectly good performance. On top of this, most of the characters never look quite right in their movement, resulting in detailed humans who jerk around and look strange. If Zemeckis allowed real actors to appear in computer-generated landscapes or had given the animated characters a cartoonish appearance to push them into the realm of imaginary, the film might have worked. Instead, the CGI recreations fall into a strange netherworld between the real and the animated; the believable and the unbelievable. They’re neither here nor there, which is the source of their unsettling creepiness.
Zemeckis pads Van Allsburg’s slim book out to a feature-length 100 minutes using manufactured action set-pieces that grow silly and repetitive. There’s an apparent fondness for vertigo-inducing rollercoaster sequences in which the train speeds uncontrollably up and down mountains, hills, or any other excuse for a steep incline. But these types of sequences are easily spotted as what they are: gimmicks to make the most of the technology. Crucially, there’s no thrill to the action, which comes back to the hollow animation techniques. To add further padding, Zemeckis introduces forced slapstick comedy, useless digressions (what was the point of the ghost hobo?), and physics-defying goofiness that undercuts the attempt at photorealism. Worst of all, however, are the terrible, terrible, terrible musical numbers featuring horrid, fluffy tunes ostensibly made to grate. The Polar Express would’ve fared better as a 45-minute television special.
The vocal talent is provided by a diverse cast including such names as Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks and a formerly unknown actor named Tom Hanks. Yep, the majority of the voices/character appearances are courtesy of Hanks, who sadly proves himself unable to fill the Peter Sellers-sized shoes required of him in the film. The actor tries not to sound too much like himself in each role, but largely fails. And seriously, what was the point of casting Hanks as the body of the Hero Boy when the character bares not a whit of resemblance to the actor and is voiced by a second actor? Gimmick is everything in The Polar Express, and casting executive producer Tom Hanks in almost every major role is the most obvious case in point.
The ultimate message of The Polar Express is not exactly agreeable. The Hero Boy rediscovers his belief in Santa, but surely this can’t be the be-all and end-all of the Christmas season… There’s a bitter tinge of selfishness underneath the surface of the moral of the story that seems out of place for the season of giving. Isn’t there more to Christmas than receiving gifts? The Polar Express is a stiff, aloof snoozer of an experiment that fails on just about every level. It has visual elements worth admiring, but it’s overwhelmed by the syrupy schmaltz, the miscalculated action scenes, and the considerably misjudged character animation. A viewer will walk away knowing they’ve experienced something Christmassy, but they won’t have been won over by the holiday spirit. The best Christmas films fill our hearts and make us believe, whereas The Polar Express just makes us shrug.