Right off the bat, I need to say that: I’ve yet to meet a Robert Zemeckis film I like; I think Tom Hanks is the most overrated actor of our time; and I’d never even heard of the children’s book that The Polar Express is based on.
Beyond that, from the moment I first saw the trailer for this movie, I thought that the characters and animation looked downright creepy. Upon finally seeing the film, my first response was that I had just seen the world’s first Christmas horror movie.
Sure, fantasy and even horrific elements abound in Christmas stories — from A Christmas Carol to Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. The 1951 Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol has its share of shuddery elements. But this overblown outburst of Zemeckisian, force-fed Christmas cheer is the first such movie I can think of that is horrific from start to finish, thanks in no small part to the film’s much-ballyhooed “performance capture” animation.
In all honesty, this “new” form of animation is a very old dog that’s been taught one new trick. It’s the latest wrinkle in a process called “rotoscope,” which was invented 80-odd years ago by the Fleischer Brothers. “Rotoscope” was the manner in which those early Betty Boop talkie cartoons — Minnie the Moocher, Snow White, The Old Man of the Mountain — incorporated the actual movements of Cab Calloway in the animation. Calloway was photographed and his movements were traced for his animated incarnation.
The new trick involves decking the performer out with sensors that allow the animators to duplicate the performer’s facial expressions, along with his or her body movements. The effect is more unsettling than convincingly human, and it sets a sinister tone for the entire movie.
However, Zemeckis doesn’t stop there, and it’s worth remembering that Zemeckis the director is also Zemeckis the producer, whose name festoons such movies as House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts and Ghost Ship. Those movies — and horror pictures in general — seem to have somehow bubbled over into this one.
The movie’s mysterious train ride with an enigmatic conductor feels like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if everyone was dead by the end of the film. A segment that involves chasing a little girl’s ticket, which apparently has a mind of its own, is uncomfortably reminiscent of the hunt in Curse of the Demon for a parchment with runic symbols on it. In fact, I wondered if a demon was going to materialize if the ticket wasn’t retrieved.
Jolly old St. Nick is here as an uncharacteristically thin Santa with a face that looks like a waxen mask. His appearance recalls one of those cheesy movies (including, if memory serves, Zemeckis’ And All Through the House episode of Tales from the Crypt) where a deranged but undeniably flamboyant killer dresses up as Santa Claus.
If I thought all these peculiar evocations — along with a North Pole where Der Bingle’s old Christmas records are endlessly piped into every corner — were deliberately unsettling, I’d actually be pretty impressed. But the film undermines itself trying to be an instant Christmas Classic.
Zemeckis’ work is nothing if not high concept at its highest, and The Polar Express is technically impressive. But once you strip the weirdness from it, there’s not only not much there, what is there doesn’t make much sense. Considering the fact that the movie is taken from something less than 20 pages of story, that’s not surprising.
The story is flimsy at best: Hero Boy (somehow played by both Hanks and Spy Kids‘ Darryl Sabara) finds his faith in Santa wavering, but he gets a lesson in believing thanks to a ride on the title train to the North Pole (which looks distressingly like Main Street U.S.A. at Disney World). There, he meets the old boy in person. Lesson learned, or so you’d think. But no, he still needs reminding that he needs to believe. (I’ve never seen a movie that so insists on accepting things on faith, while spending its entire length proving their reality.)
Other aspects of the movie make even less sense. Why do Santa’s elves tend to speak in a Yiddish dialect? Why, for that matter, are they jazzed up about seeing Santa? You might think they’d be kind of used to the old gent.
For all its technical invention, the movie remains drearily unoriginal. The opening, for example, couldn’t try any harder (or fail any more spectacularly) to be Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands — right down to Alan Sivestri’s rip-off Danny Elfman score. (In all fairness, Silvestri’s score doesn’t always sound like Elfman; sometimes it sounds like Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.)
I won’t say The Polar Express isn’t fascinating, but I will say it misses being a great movie by many miles.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke