Title: The Polar Express
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriters: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Tom Hanks, Chris Coppola, Michael Jeter
It occurs to me that the age group targeted by The Polar Express — roughly 7-11, if my instincts don’t fail me — is just about at that time when children are normally disabused of the notion that a large man in a red suit delivers gifts via reindeer-pulled sleigh. That can be a fairly traumatic realization, and what these kids could use is a movie that helps them cope with that, reconcile their idea of Christmas with the magic it holds in reality. From that perspective, this movie, which instructs them to believe no matter what stupid, cynical adults may tell them, isn’t really helping. I would have loved to see a movie that nourishes their skeptical drive and thirst for real knowledge rather than encouraging blind faith despite ample evidence to the contrary.
But that’s a different movie, of course; The Polar Express fully and unquestioningly embraces yuletide mythology, and must be dealt with on those merits. It is a skillful fantasy, engaging and reasonably exciting, and technically fascinating even if more run-of-the-mill descriptors such as “stunning,” “eye-popping,” or even “good” cannot apply. To be fair on that last point, the film was made for the IMAX 3-D format, and I hear it does look more spectacular than peculiar when seen in such a theater, but even in a typical multiplex it never looks anything less than interesting.
To the untrained eye, Robert Zemeckis’ movie looks like any old CGI-animated effort, something Pixar might tap for their yearly release. In reality, though the backgrounds were indeed created with computers, all of the scenes were filmed using motion-capture technology, with actors hooked up to sensors and moving in front of blue screens. Tom Hanks played most of the male roles, including the “hero boy” and Santa Claus, and this is one movie I’m dying to see a behind-the-scenes documentary for. The result is bizarre: the characters are more realistic in their bodily movements, but their faces don’t look right; their mouths seem pasted on, and their skin is oddly waxy-looking. In particular, the Hero Girl, who is supposed to be one of the film’s most sympathetic figures, just doesn’t seem human; it doesn’t help that she is voiced by 29 year-old Nona M. Gaye.
So the movie completely abandons naturalism — more than anything, it has the logic of an amusement park ride, with huge distances being traversed in minutes and remarkable physical feats pulled off perfectly by both characters and inanimate objects. Most of the action-adventure stuff was added by screenwriters Zemeckis and William Broyles, Jr., as the popular children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg (Jumanji) mostly just involved a train taking a relatively uneventful train to the North Pole. Zemeckis, who directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit before moving on to more adult fare like Forrest Gump and Contact, is a talented filmmaker whether he is working in animation or live-action, and his sense of grandeur along with his professionalism, give the action scenes considerable pull. And I bet they work even better in 3-D.
The North Pole itself is appropriately elaborate, with lots of little elves running around (has there ever been a movie about an elf rebellion?) and a creepy sequence set to “Winter Wonderland.” Santa Claus himself is kind of underwhelming; as someone else pointed out, despite being played by Tom Hanks, Santa looks more like Tim Allen in The Santa Clause. Though I guess just about the only thing that would have impressed me would have been if Santa had turned out to be an alien; there’s only so much you can do with a large, animated, bearded man.
The ending involves the idea that as people grow up, they stop being able to hear the ringing of Santa’s sleigh bells. The protagonist tells us that he could hear them as long as he lived, that by believing, he made it real. But what does that mean? Are we teaching our children to become solipsists? At one point, “doubter” is used as an insult; is that really the attitude we want to instill?
But screw it. I’m no moralist. The Polar Express is a fascinating technical experiment and a more-than-watchable kids’ adventure. Zemeckis is a pro, and the movie should be a hit. Just make sure your kids still believe you afterward.