Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Polar Express


I’ve been to several IMAX shows, but they had all been in settings like museums or world’s fairs, and they weren’t feature-length general release films like this one. Lee and I saw it together, and we’re not sure where it was, but I’m thinking it may have been in or around San Jose when we also visited the Winchester Mystery House. I was wondering how it would hold up, tech-wise, after sixteen years. The answer is: Mostly better than I expected. Mostly.

Robert Zemeckis is one of those directors, like James Cameron, who gravitates toward high-tech special effects and CGI. True, he has helmed films like Cast Away and Forrest Gump, but I associate him more with Death Becomes Her, Beowulf, and Jim Carrey’s A Christmas Carol. The Polar Express had a staggering budget of $165,000,000, pretty expensive for 2004. Nine years earlier Toy Story had become the first all computer-animated film. This was the first all motion-capture animation. The actors wore suits and facial masks that told the computer what they were doing. It’s common today, but pretty revolutionary back then. Tom Hanks played the train conductor, a strange hobo, and Santa Claus.

And the CGI holds up well, mostly. It is deeply detailed. Zemeckis was in love with the fact that, with CGI sets, he could move the “camera” with total freedom, so he gets a lot of zooms and dissolves and odd angles. Mostly they work (mostly) though sometimes they are a bit distracting. RZ was also addicted to roller coaster rides, which I tend to like, but maybe the six or seven of them we are seated on were a bit much. But I know that when you’re making a 3D movie, thrill rides are expected. Where it needs work was in the area that is called the “uncanny valley.” That’s a term for the cognitive dissonance that can happen when a human face or figure is somehow … just not right. We accept the humans in Toy Story because they are in an obvious cartoon. In film like this one, where they are striving for real human faces, the “off-ness” can cause people to react badly. A lot of people complained about that. I found it weird, myself, but quickly adjusted to it. I don’t think they were actually trying to make believable characters anyway, since the artwork was based on illustrations from a book. These days, of course, it is possible to get the skin, and the mouth, and everything else totally indistinguishable from reality.

So what about the story? Well, it contains four things that I have always liked: animation, Christmas, choo-choos, and Tom Hanks, so how bad could it be? Not bad at all. The train engine is patterned after an actual 2-8-4 pufferbilly, a Pere Marquette 1225, and it’s a marvel. It doesn’t get too saccharine at the end, and it contains some darker elements than most Christmas fare, though not dark enough to put anyone off. In fact, when the DVD was starting I realized that it had been quite a while since we had seen a G rating screen at the top.