The review below prompted a response from director Richard Franklin, who reviews the 3D Imax version of the film and presents an opposing view here.
started with the trailer, definitely not a kiss.
the camera (what camera?) swept in to the train guard standing
next to the huge, metallic, eponymous beast, I had a jolt
of recognition and then a fully fledged feeling of something
decidedly unpleasant crawling up my spine. It was Tom Hanks
– not crawling up my spine, you understand. He wouldn't
have had the time. But it was Tom Hanks. But it wasn't.
It was really him but it wasn't him. Everyone must be familiar
by now that it really was Tom Hanks but strained through
a digital colander, his every move and nuance captured by
complex software systems slaved to hardware attached to
the actor's body. He voices all the principal characters
and 'digitally' acts at least three of them. The train snaked
up to the top of an impossible peak, its carriages bending
just as impossibly, another shot of Hanks as digital Hanks
and I actually think I shivered.
the trailer was over, I knew (being a parent with a movie
hungry son) that I would be expected to traipse along dutifully
to The Polar Express. I really didn't mind,
as I love 'going' to the movies as much as watching (some
of) the films themselves. I'd seen The
Incredibles a week earlier and there
was no way a whimsical Christmas fantasy was going to usurp
that particular one hundred and one animation's thrills
but then the only thing the movies had in common was both
had never been near a camera in their production history.
Perhaps the jargon will one day come up with a single word
to replace 'computer generated imagery' but it’s all
we have for now. I guess I could invent one – 'Seegee' anyone? The Polar Express was a case of the Seegees
giving me the Heebee Geebees. So unfair that the brothers
Gibb did not provide the music...
Alive, anyone? Real verses digital?
– the basic thrust. One day in the near future we will be
able to generate photo-realistic things and render them
to film (or project them in digital theatres). Well, trick
statement. We passed that limitation about six years ago.
You are now looking at computer generated objects without
being aware that they are just that; a rubbish bin full
of corporate junk ("the Microsoft universe" from Fight Club); in the same movie, buildings
exploding and falling. All CG (granted in the latter there
were some specially filmed inserts composited). Take a tour
of Jodie Foster's kitchen in that extraordinary shot from
the same director's Panic Room. Digital.
The computer can do inanimate objects so well now that we
cannot possibly tell the difference any more. Sure, the
web-slinging Spider-Man is very obviously
digital (we almost couldn't tell in the sequel) but what
about the buildings he swings through, a cunning blend of
both shot-for-real and digital constructs.
next stage – one actually investigated head on in the unseen
by me but not record breaking Simone with
Al Pacino – is, can we create a computer generated human
being – a synthespian if you will (yawn) – and have it 'fool'
an audience? Well, some of the work in The Lord
of the Rings trilogy is first rate but I'm talking
about close up faces giving performances not artful elves
mounting horses the impossible way. Yes, Gollum, but Gollum
is Gollum and no human could have played that role that
it's a safe bet that über-successful director Robert
Zemeckis wasn't out to break that CG-as-real-human barrier.
The technology is not there yet but the question I asked
all through this dark chocolate box motion picture, this
weird and creepy Christmas movie is WHY? You're Robert Zemeckis!
Hanks trusts you. Use Hanks for real! I simply could not
fathom why Seegee was necessary to tell this story. Of course,
the stunts and contortions of other characters, fair enough
but why CG the principals? Was it some sort of ground-breaking
form of narrative that I should appreciate for the stunning
work it most certainly was? On all technical levels, the
film is rampantly stunning. Yes, humans interacting in that
milieu would look phoney (so they phonied up the humans
to match, aiee).
story is wet paper-thin (as befits a source book not even
three score pages long). A young boy is on the cusp of working
out that Santa is some parental-societal construct whose
history has long since been buried and obfuscated in ritual
and absurdity. We are all aware that the jolly fat man in
red and white was created by Coca Cola? Good. That cheapens
the whole deal right there and I drink the stuff. So this
kid (apparently modelled on Hanks as an eight year old,
why?) hears an enormous Express engine pull up outside on
tracks that weren't there earlier. So we've crossed into
fantasy-land. That's OK. It's just that your rules in fantasy-land
have to be rigidly defined more so than those rules for
'real life'. Because we don't know them.
the rules are these – in The Polar Express’s
fantasy-land, there's a ghost hobo who lives on top of the
train who frequently dissolves into snowflakes. As you do.
Uh, OK. The Guard (Mr. Creepo Seegee Hanks) can do extraordinary
things with a ticket punch and somehow defies several laws
of gravity whist strolling along the top of the train. Alright.
A fellow father press ganged into accompanying their children
to this oddly disconcerting experience mentioned that all
the red tunic’ed Christmas elves (exhibiting what
looked like Blade Runner's 'Methuselah
Syndrome') gave the rather uncomfortable impression of being
the hordes at some sort of fascist rally. Santa exists (naturally
and he has a big white beard and not a small black moustache)
and he's Tom Hanks – no, a Seegee Hanks with the afore mentioned
beard that looks more like a progressive albino disease
than an outgrowth of jolly white hair.
didn’t connect with the narrative at all. And (subversively)
I found the fact that The
Incredibles was wiping the floor with The Polar Express oddly comforting. Sorry but that’s the way I'm made.
Zemeckis – huge talent and uncanny judge of popular taste.
John Lassiter – God. No contest. Yes, I know Brad Bird both
wrote and directed The
Incredibles but behind every great
Pixar is Lassiter.
In The Polar Express's fantasy-land, Santa
is real and manages the super-human feat of delivering the
presents to all the children in all the world, presents
he gets from an ultra large sack that my accompanying friend
mentioned resembled a scrotum. How can a 'however much this
movie cost' movie present tireless computer workers with
such a design and no one puts their hand up? Santa puts
fantasy-faith back into those kids who were just starting
to MATURE into LOGICALLY THINKING BEINGS! Oh, Scrooge that
I am. The Guard then finishes punching the tickets of our
children heroes and heigh ho, what's this? He's punched
in words that define the natures of those who own the tickets.
So those kids are screwed from now on because some creepy
weirdo has defined what they are. Did I mention the creepy
weirdo was bald? What was that all about? Oh, and something
the animators still haven't got right. No computer generated
character ever really looks like they are holding on to
something (they aren't but you know what I mean). They seem
to float in contact never grip. Infuriating.
is Forrest Gump writ small and I despised,
hated, abhorred, reviled, detested and loathed (and synonymed
'hated' to death) the awful travesty that was Forrest
Gump... That crackerjack movie managed to say to
free thinkers the world over: "Don’t worry. The
world will take care of you..." It was a genuflection
to the worst our western world has to offer. "Laafff
iz lack a boxa choclats…" No it isn't, you witless
craphound. The film advocated no personal responsibility
(it doesn't even matter if you are as thick as three short
planks) and revelled and celebrated the inane, the dumb,
the feckless. Feck, the feck, OFF.
us empowering movies that tell us it's OUR FAULT things
are this way and let's go some way to improve things. Gross
subversion (which I'm usually all for) by $150 million plus
movies making Tom Hanks into a digital moral arbiter makes
me rather ill. Excuse me. It's Christmas time and the one
Christmas movie I've seen makes me wish that Futurama's
insane, murdering, robotic Santa were patrolling the streets.
That's a Santa I could believe in.
I am informed that the experience of viewing The
Polar Express in IMAX 3-D is a stunning one. Fair
enough. I'd even see it again given those conditions but
alas, most of us won't be living anywhere near such a presentation
so… Jingle bells…