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All are bored (and seriously creeped out)
A film review of THE POLAR EXPRESS by Camus

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.


It started with the trailer, definitely not a kiss.

As 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.

Once 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...

Staying Alive, anyone? Real verses digital?

OK – 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.

The 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 emaciated.

Well 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).

The 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.


Well, 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.

I 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.

This 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.

Give 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.

P.S. 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…

The Polar Express

USA 20045
99 mins
Robert Zemeckis
Gary Goetzman
Steve Starkey
William Teitler
Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis
William Broyles Jr.
from the book by
Chris Van Allsburg
R. Orlando Duenas
Jeremiah O'Driscoll
Glen Ballard
Alan Silvestri
production design
Rick Carter
Tom Hanks
Leslie Harter Zemeckis
Eddie Deezen
Nona M. Gaye
Peter Scolari
review posted
17 December 2004