Robert Zemeckis is one of Hollywood’s more notable directors. On top of directing the likes of Forrest Gump, he’s also directed two of my favorite movies with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But during the 2000s, Zemeckis had a strange fascination with creating movies entirely through motion-capture. From 2004 to 2009, Zemeckis directed a trilogy’s worth of mo-cap features, the first of which being The Polar Express, the first film made entirely through motion-capture.
If there’s one thing Zemeckis’ mo-cap trilogy proved, however, it’s that the technique is better used as a visual effect for live-action films to bring fantastic creatures to life, as opposed to a storytelling medium of its own.
The Polar Express tells a decent enough story for a Christmas movie. A young boy (who is never named during the film, and the credits simply list him as “Hero Boy”) is getting older, and is at the age when children begin losing their sense of wonder. He’s doubting the existence of Santa Claus, and subsequently the spirit of Christmas itself.
On Christmas Eve night, a mysterious train arrives at his front door. While everyone else in the neighborhood remains unaware of the train’s existence, the Hero Boy receives an invitation to visit the North Pole for the night, along with a host of other children as part of a tradition where one of the selected children receives the first gift of Christmas. Though the Hero Boy is initially hesitant, he decides to hop on the train. Thus begins the adventure onboard the titular Polar Express.
The movie has good enough intentions, and tells a nice little Christmas story. Some problems arise, however, when it becomes obvious that the film doesn’t know how to fill out its running time. The Polar Express is based on a children’s book, and like many movies based on children’s books, it doesn’t quite know how to spread the source material enough to fill a feature film. Many scenes just feel like filler, and there’s an unnecessary amount of action scenes for a movie about a kid’s belief in Santa Claus. There are also too many moments that are just obviously trying to show off the film’s technology, which hasn’t exactly been aging gracefully.
It’s that technology that has ended up being the movie’s great fault. The Polar Express uses motion-capture to try to capture a sense of realism, but by doing so, it only ends up looking lifeless. It tries to look real, but we can tell it’s fake. It’s animated, but it doesn’t want to be. The film just looks entirely artificial, and the characters seem unable to reflect real emotion in their eyes (compare that to a character like Buzz Lightyear who, despite looking completely exaggerated, can show a range of emotions in an instant). The end results can look a little creepy, and although some of the effects were impressive in 2004, time has only magnified the blemishes. The fact that this movie was the first of a kind may go entirely unnoticed, and you may even get distracted from the story, because the characters just look that unnerving.
On the bright side, The Polar Express takes advantage of its medium to give Tom Hanks a myriad of roles to play. On top of portraying the train’s conductor (who bears the most resemblance to Hanks, but with a mustache), Tom Hanks also plays the part of Santa Claus, Hero Boy’s father, and the mysterious ghost Hobo who rides on top of the Polar Express. Tom Hanks’ various presences give the film some credibility, and showcase just a tad of the actor’s versatility.
The Polar Express is still worth a look for those wanting to see a more modern Christmas movie that tries to capture the sincerity of films from Christmas’ past. But it stands that the movie’s main hook has also proven to be the thing that prevents the film from reaching the timelessness it so desperately wants to achieve. Motion-capture may work when bringing a creature like Gollum and even Jar-Jar Binks to life among live actors, but when used in place of more traditional animation techniques to tell a story, it just looks fake. The movie also has too much filler, and some of the “magic” elements are trying a bit hard, and only just end up feeling needlessly vague (you may wonder why the aforementioned Ghost Hobo even needed to be in the film).
It’s inoffensive, and at least it’s honest. But one trip aboard The Polar Express may be enough for today’s audiences.