0812 The Polar Express

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.



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  1. ReasonableCritic December 14, 2013

    I agree 100% that the technique makes the characters uber-unsettling. But here’s the thing: the entire story (such as it is) has a dark and threatening edge, and when I view the film through the lens of the eight-year-old I once was, I realize that the strange, dark quality would have fascinated me, and that I would have LOVED this movie because of it. Therefore, this was the perfect film for Zemekis to try out his new motion-capture technology. The creepiness lent by the new technology fits. For God”s sake, the North Pole in this movie is like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil!

    • quaiacom December 14, 2013

      I’m much more forgiving of it here, than I am when I review his adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”. The animation on its own I could have forgiven but the whole of the train journey and its contrived peril really grates. When he could have gone for awe and wonder, he went for faux action/ adventure.

      • ReasonableCritic December 14, 2013

        This is why adapting a picture book into a full-length movie is usually a bad idea. My question is, why didn’t they turn to Chris Van Allsburg for ideas when it came to fleshing out the tale? As a writer-illustrator, Allsburg is second only to Maurice Sendak, and at the very least he could have come up with conceptual art to guide the filmmakers’ way. During the train ride part of the movie, the additions made to the story are strikingly free from imagination. And when we finally reach the North Pole it’s brilliantly realized, yet still there is no story. IMO the Polar Express is effectively magical and eerie, but it’s also the definition of a deeply flawed film.

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