THE POLAR EXPRESS
The Polar Express was directed by Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis has a number of genre associations in the past, having made films such as Romancing the Stone (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Back to the Future Part II (1989), Back to the Future Part III (1990), Death Becomes Her (1992), Forrest Gump (1994), Contact (1997), What Lies Beneath (2000), Cast Away (2000), Flight (2012), The Walk (2015) and Allied (2016). Zemeckis is a director who has remained at the cutting edge of moviemaking technology. Roger Rabbit created a revolution in merging human performances with hand drawn animated characters; Death Becomes Her and Forrest Gump were among some of the first films to employ digital technology; while Zemeckis always takes on arduous challenges Cast Away halted production for an entire year so that Tom Hanks could lose a third of his body weight and grow his hair out to play the title castaway. What Zemeckis has created with The Polar Express is not entirely an animated film, although certainly no longer a live-action one but some exciting new medium that lies between the two.
Much of the critical response to The Polar Express centred around the look, where the hyper-realism of the characters was frequently called creepy. I cannot say this was ever a problem to me. Once you become used to this, which takes about five minutes, and if you did not know anything about how The Polar Express was made, you could just be watching a standard animated film, the only difference being that the conductor has the distinctive features of Tom Hanks. Nevertheless, the process gives a superb sense of realism to the characters there is a crystalline definition to the features on the face of the boy where you can see all the emotions play out. The performances captured are fantastic the lonely boy has a plaintive charm, while the girl comes to life with a genuine strength of her own. Robert Zemeckis directs the film with epic dramatic flourish and attention to the minutiae of detail where we see everything from the casual frosting on the window of the train to the architecture of the city and factories stretching away into the distance in flawless clarity.
The Polar Express is adapted from a 1985 illustrated book by Chris Van Allsburg, previously best known as the author of Jumanji (1995) and subsequently of Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005). One has not read Chris Van Allsburgs book but the film gives the impression of having been landed with the idea of a train journey, found this not terribly exciting on its own and decided to invent a series of set-pieces to keep the action moving. As such, The Polar Express tends to be constructed around various incidents stopping the train for the lonely boy; a bizarre musical number with dancing espresso waiters; the encounter with caribou on the track; the boy trying to stop the conductor throwing the girl off; the sequence where the girls ticket blows away and is caught up by all manner of objects before blowing back into the train; the encounter with the hobo; the dropped lever; and especially a seat-edge exhilarating sequence with the train skidding off its tracks and going sliding out across the ice. Though these sequences seem episodic, there is a beautiful sense that runs throughout the film of being on a genuinely magical adventure.
The Polar Express is less interesting in the second half when it arrives at the North Pole and the running around various parts of the city, elf factories and into Santas sack hold less a sense of exciting adventure than they seem conducted to show off the fabulous artificial sets. At least the design of the North Pole in these scenes is stunning where the production designers have construed the world as something akin to a giant 1920s styled Grand Hotel filled with huge arches, ceilings, quasi-Victorian architecture and pneumatic tubes.
One must also commend Robert Zemeckis for resisting the clichés of the Christmas film of having elves taking slapstick pratfalls every time they turn up on screen, of turning the North Pole into another wacky absurdist realm like something out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). I must admit that I am not a big fan of Christmas fantasies, of which Hollywood feels the need to turn out at least one every other Yuletide season. However, The Polar Express is one occasion where my inherent bah humbuggary was swept away at the loveliness of the fantasy that Robert Zemeckis conjures up. The Polar Express is whichever way you look at it technically, artistically, in terms of all the expected plaintive emotion of seasonal family entertainment a magical film.
Robert Zemeckis subsequently went onto direct two other films in the same animated motion capture process with his adaptations of Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009) and announced a remake of Yellow Submarine (1968), which was then canned. Zemeckis also produced the motion capture animated Monster House (2006) and Mars Needs Moms (2011).
(No. 6 on the SF, Horror & Fantasy Box-Office Top 10 of 2004 list).