Hello, everyone! It’s Christmas Day, and instead of talking about a beloved holiday favorite, I want to discuss what is perhaps one of the creepiest Christmas movies I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch: The Polar Express. From director Robert Zemeckis, the brain behind such classics as Back to the Future and Cast Away comes a modern holiday classic combining every viewer’s favorite things, uncanny valley animation and preachy moralizing. It was a controversial film at its release, with film critic Robert Ebert giving it 4 stars for its “deeper, shivery tone” (as if that’s somehow a good thing in a Christmas film), while New York Times critic Manohla Dargis viewed it in a completely different light, noting that the movie has on “some fundamental level lost touch with the human aspect of film.” While the decade and a half since its release has softened the film’s bumpy initial reception, with many now viewing the film as a holiday classic, I find myself siding with Manohla Dargis on this one. Unsettling, strange, and poorly written, The Polar Express has little to recommend it to fans of Christmas movies.
Synopsis: Having grown too old to believe in Christmas magic, our unnamed protagonist awakens on Christmas Eve to the sound of a train outside his suburban house. The charismatic Conductor ushers him aboard The Polar Express, a magical train that carries lucky children to the North Pole to see Santa before he leaves to deliver presents for Christmas. Throughout the journey, the boy meets a cast of characters, including new friends, a mysterious train hobo, industrious elves, and even Santa himself, and finally learns to believe again in the magic of Christmas.
My thoughts: I admire movies that take risks, even if those risks don’t pay off, so I have to give director Robert Zemeckis and his crew credit for the enormous feat of making a feature length film with purely motion-capture style animation in 2004. The most gorgeous part of the film is the lighting and the scenery. The color palette, full of deep indigos, bright golds, and silvery whites, is reminiscent of Dutch paintings. As the train crisscrosses the icy landscape, its warm windows glowing in the darkness, we can see the artistic potential of this movie. It’s truly beautiful, and it’s clear that the art team created their world with a great eye for detail, especially in creating the train and the North Pole.
Where they failed, unfortunately, is the essential aspect of character animation. According to the film’s Wikipedia article, when the rights to the original book were sold, “one of the conditions of the sale was that the resulting film not be animated. Zemeckis, however, felt that a live-action version was unfeasible, claiming that it “would look awful, and it would be impossible – it would cost $1 billion instead of $160 million.” So instead of making a live action film, or animating it in the traditional way, “a new process was created by which actors would be filmed with motion capturing equipment in a black box stage which would then be animated to make the resulting film.”
Even though this technique was used successfully before in movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it failed spectacularly in this instance. I think that Zemeckis was a forward thinker and definitely ahead of his time in some ways, and we can see that motion capture animation can be really successful with animated films like Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, but he and his team failed to animate their characters in a way that made them seem realistic without crossing the line into the uncanny valley. Basically, the characters look almost exactly like real humans, but there’s just something undefinable that makes them seem inhuman. Maybe it’s the stiff way that they turn their heads, or the way that one character’s smile stretches too widely, or the fact that their skin is too plasticky and shiny to be real. Whatever quality it is that separates these animated characters from photorealistic humans, it’s unsettling enough to make the end result quite creepy. I had no desire to empathize with any of the characters because I didn’t want to even look at them. The children seemed like eerie mannequins, and even the train conductor, who has Tom Hank’s face, looks just off enough to be disturbing.
One of the reasons that The Adventures of Tintin managed to use motion capture in a successful manner was because the character animation was cartoonish enough to escape venturing into uncanny valley territory. The character’s faces are realistic looking, but they all have one cartoonish feature, like too-round eyes, or a comically large nose, that keeps them from becoming creepy. Just compare the faces of the boy in The Polar Express and Tintin:
The boy from The Polar Express looks more realistic than Tintin, but he also looks more bizarre. The lighting reflects off his face as if it’s made of plastic, and his features are too stiff. He seems like a robot child, much like Hayley Joel Osment in A.I, and is thus terrifying. On the other hand, Tintin looks like a 3D cartoon character placed into the real world. His exaggerated features and coloring make him seem cute and human without verging on creepy territory. Perhaps the technology just wasn’t there yet to create the type of nuance that Zemeckis needed, but either way, the animated characters in The Polar Express turned out to be terrifying mannequins, not lovable cartoon characters.
Sadly for Zemeckis, the bizarre animation isn’t the movie’s only fault. The plot is also pretty strange. Ebert got it right when he described the movie as having a “shivery tone.” From the first time the magic train appears, there’s a sense that something ominous is about to happen. Even though this is ostensibly a fun magical journey for children, everything seems to go wrong. First, one of the children’s tickets goes missing, and the conductor deals with this in such a threatening way that the main character is convinced he must venture onto the roof of the train to save this girl from being chucked off of the train. Not that she was ever in danger of being chucked off of the train, and in fact gets to have some fun driving it, but you wouldn’t know that from how ominous the situation seemed. Then there’s the creepy hobo ghost who appears at the oddest moments, and about three hair-rising instances where it seems that this magic train might actually fall off of the tracks and kill all of the “lucky” children inside.
I get that there needs to be some complications to the story in order for it to be interesting, but after the third time that the train almost falls off the rails due to adult negligence, and the kids have to rectify the situation with some very Fast and Furious style maneuvers, you really start to wonder about the competence of these people running this thing. I mean, shouldn’t this train be able to safely make its way to the North Pole without crashing by now? Shouldn’t Santa have his best people on this, and not some drunk Tweedle Dee and Dum manning the wheel? What would be the liability situation if all of these kids did die in a horrible Christmas Eve magic train crash? Could the parents sue Santa?
Luckily for the children, they make it to the North Pole without death or maiming, and the preaching part of the story can begin. Poor Billy, whose family is poor (implied because of his ragged nightshirt), finally gets a present from Santa and learns to trust again. The girl, called Hero Girl in the Wikipedia article, finally gets recognition for being a good leader. The Know-It-All kid gets personally chastised by Santa for being obnoxious and receives only some underwear for Christmas. The main boy finally learns to believe in Santa and the magic of Christmas. But I mean, who wouldn’t, after being dragged to hell and back on such a dangerous train? All in all, every kid learns their proper place in the world and that Christmas is special and not at all fake and that Santa is definitely real and they should keep believing in him, even if they are an adult pretending to be Santa for their own children. What a wonderful lesson!
Maybe I’m a scrooge, but I hate these kind of Christmas movies because instead of teaching kids that holidays should be about spending time with loved ones, they instead teach them to believe in imaginary old men and the magic of expensive presents. Clearly, this type of film isn’t for me. But sadly, I’m having a hard time figuring out who this movie is intended for. It’s not a good movie for children because it’s creepy and honestly frightening how close these kids come to dying in a train explosion. It’s not for adults because it’s boring, uninspiring, and sanctimonious. It’s definitely not for fans of Christmas movies because it places far too much emphasis on being haunting and shivery and far too little emphasis on being warm and fuzzy. So who is it for? Train enthusiasts?
Final consensus: The Polar Express tries very hard to be a Christmas classic, and it should be commended for the effort, but it fails on multiple levels. While the background animation is gorgeous, the characters are stiff, creepy, and difficult to like. The plot is all over the place and the tone comes across as smug. While it might excite train buffs, it has little for anyone else. Christmas classic, it is not.