The award winning book “The Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsburg is a charming tale of a magical train which takes a boy who has begun to have doubts about Santa Claus to the North Pole where he meets the man himself and is rewarded with a special gift, forever preserving the magic of Christmas. On paper, the perfect subject for an animated Christmas Movie.
Unfortunately for us, “The Polar Express” we’ve hopped on board is taking a detour on its way to the North Pole, and that detour is taking us straight down into the Uncanny Valley. Director Robert Zemeckis’ baffling decision to adapt this story using motion capture backfires horribly. The production design of the train and the landscapes is well realised, and capitalises on the charming illustrations from the book, bringing them to life in spectacular style. However, the character design is horrible, and the execution even worse. Motion captured from the actual performers, the result is a film populated by dead-eyed, awkwardly inexpressive mannequins.
Adding insult to injury, Zemeckis takes huge liberties with the story. The original tale is gentle, soothing and quite straightforward: the perfect bedtime story. In the original, the journey to the North Pole aboard the train is uneventful but the film, needing to fill its running time, crams the journey with adventure, danger, crises and a mysterious, vanishing hobo. The problem is, all of the crises and risks feel contrived and coincidental. Nothing flows organically from the story, so the passengers and the train lurch arbitrarily from one close call to the next simply to fill up screen time and stretch the story out. Because the danger is contrived, the resolution is never rewarding and provokes tuts and eyerolls rather than gasps and cheers.
Ultimately it’s a deeply frustrating experience because Zemeckis is a talented director and the story has the potential to be magical but this creepily animated, over engineered experiment is the equivalent of a lump of unconvincing fake coal in your stocking.