Mark Reviews Movies

THE POLAR EXPRESS

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Voices and/or performances of Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Jimmy Bennett, Eddie Deezen, Peter Scolari, Michael Jeter

MPAA Rating: 

Running Time: 1:32

Release Date: 11/10/04


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Review by Mark Dujsik

The Polar Express tries to get by with charmóthe charm of its admittedly astonishing visuals, the charm of its origins as a children's bedtime favorite, and the charm of its simplistic feeling of the Christmas spiritóbut sometimes it takes a little more than charm. The world of the movie is the stuff of childhood fancy, but it never engages us in that transcendent way that brings even the most hardened adults into its imagination. In fact, the movie has a problem connecting to us even on the basic level of its story. Considering the breadth of imagery and the visceral appeal of its more fantastical sequences, it is all the more disappointing. Director Robert Zemeckis is known for making technological breakthroughs throughout his career, and this movie marks yet another with a process called Performance Capture on display. The end result is far less impressive than the name implies. The effect is that of watching an extended special effects sequence, where we admire the technical merits of the process which brought it into realization but are kept at a distance by a lack of genuine involvement. 

On the night before Christmas, a young, unnamed boy (voice of Daryl Sabara, "performance" by Tom Hanks) lies awake in bed waiting to hear the bells of Santa's sleigh. He is at the cusp of that time in childhood when one starts to doubt the existence of Santa and collects evidence pointing in the direction that it's all make-believe (an old photo of him tugging off the beard a mall Santa and a group of Santas on strike, to name a few pieces). He falls asleep, determined in his skepticism, only to be awakened by a loud rumbling. Outside, he discovers a train, and its rushed conductor (voice and "performance" by Hanks), who tells him this is the Polar Expressódirect line to the North Pole. After a moment's consideration as the train begins to depart, the boy decides to get aboard. There he finds a group of children excitedly awaiting their arrival to Santa's domain, including an unnamed girl (voice and "performance" by Nona Gaye), a know-it-all (voice and "performance" by Eddie Deezen), and a lonely kid from the other side of the tracks (voice of Jimmy Bennett, "performance" by Peter Scolari).

What follows is a series of escapades and misadventures by our group of energetic young heroes. On a purely technical level, a large majority of these scenes look fantastic. A sequence where the train skids across ice as the conductor tries to guide it onto the oncoming tracks stands out for sheer visual spectacle. In fact, most of the sequences succeed in that way, but that's as far as they go. The movie is missing that all-important level of involvement, so no matter how impressive the look of the action sequences, there's no thrill to them. We sit back, give an impressed look, and wonder why it's not exciting. Part of the reason is the technical aspect itself, which gives the movie such a polished look that it feels hollow. Take the design of the characters, which signals a leap forward in the way computer animated characters are rendered but keeps us at a distance from them. The characters are most certainly animated, despite the Performance Capture technique, and even with the new process, the "performances" come across stilted. They lie in that odd place between real and unreal, and their resulting surrealistic nature makes them, well, a little too creepy for comfort.

Also part of the problem is the reliance on threadbare sequences, mainly the repeated "roller coaster" moments. One has the train rushing through the hills and valleys of the tracks as they make their way closer to their destination. Another has the kids speeding down a twisting-turning chute to Santa's bag of gifts. And yet another follows one child's golden ticket (isn't it always a golden ticket?) from Hero Boy's hand, out into the wilderness, and, after seeing its own share of adventures, right back to the train. By the time we reach the North Pole, the movie begins to peak our interest a bit more. There are a few amusing touches in the design of Santa's lair, like a gigantic monitoring system that allows the elves to see every child in the world and a huge compass at the actual North Pole where all points indicate south. And I wonder if the elves' party after Santa leaves is a tradition celebrating another successful Christmas or celebrating a brief pause of Santa's tyrannical hold over them for the rest of the year. I'm just curious.

I'm also left a bit unsure of The Polar Express' ultimate message. The boy rediscovers his belief in Santa, but surely, that cannot be the be-all and end-all of the season? There's a bitter tinge of selfishness just underneath the surface of the moral of the story that seems out of place for the season of giving. The movie's climax revolves around Santa's annual custom of handing out one gift to one lucky youngster, and the way it's resolved solidifies the egocentric nature of the lesson. Wouldn't it have been more in the spirit of the season to let the child from the other side of the tracks, who has seemingly been longing for Christmas his entire life, to have his moment? And isn't there more to Christmas than getting presents anyway?

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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