The Polar Express (review)

Ho Ho No

If we’re honest about it, there’s something kinda creepy about the jolly man who lives at the North Pole, isn’t there? He sees you when you’re sleeping? Ewww. Slave armies of happy elves mass-producing Bratz and Dancing Elmos? Weird. Christmas stories tend to gloss over these rather vile underpinnings, and rightly so — the little ‘uns should go to bed on Christmas Eve with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, not paranoid nightmares about a big fat dude breaking and entering and helping himself to milk and cookies.
The minds behind The Polar Express apparently think otherwise — though, granted, it may be more the parents of the kiddies who’re dragged along to the multiplex who find their skin crawling at this horribly misbegotten film. It’s hard to imagine that merry deliveries of the heebie-jeebies was the intent of the filmmakers — certainly, there’s nothing uncomfortable or icky about the beautiful and beloved Chris Van Allsburg picture book from which the film is adapted. But it seems that in expanding the very-very short story of the book to feature length, every opportunity was taken to subvert the sweet, gentle adventure of the imagination that Van Allsburg created.

One would like to grit one’s teeth and request, in an insistent parental tone, that director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, What Lies Beneath) and his frequent screenwriter William Broyles Jr. (Unfaithful, Planet of the Apes) use their inside voices. They’ve blown up a simple, quietly magical train trip to the North Pole on Christmas Eve into a roller coaster, an advertisement for the Runaway Polar Express theme-park attraction surely coming soon to a Six Flags near you. Shall pajama-clad child passengers be put in mortal peril along the way, as the train fishtails across iced-over lakes and zooms down grades so steep that they have no use for the laws of physics? Why not? It’s Christmas, after all!

The bombastic Hollywood-ization of the story’s action is perhaps to be expected from a movie that’s more an event — accompanied by X-Box game versions and “novelizations” of the film! — than a mere attempt to tell a nice story. And event it must be, overhyped and heavily promoted, if the film is to have any chance of earning back the 12 gazillion dollars Warner Bros. will admit to spending to create it (rumors have it pegged at a much dearer price), most of which was blown on a new kind of motion-capture-fueled CGI animation that was meant to re-create the delicate luminousness of Van Allsburg’s achingly lovely oil-and-colored-pencil illustrations, and utterly fails to do so. Instead, as has been the case with most attempts at photorealistically animated human faces, there’s a fake, plastic sheen to them that even competent voice performances by actors such as Tom Hanks (The Ladykillers, Catch Me If You Can), as both the train’s conductor and the unnamed young boy upon whom the story focuses, among other characters, Michael Jeter (in the last performance before his death), and Peter Scolari (Hanks’s former Bosom Buddy) can’t overcome.

That the humans look like dolls lurched into Frankensteinian life is bad. Very much worse is the inadvertent anti holiday spirit that’s padding out the film. It’s never a good idea to bring up poor kids who don’t get visited by Santa in a film that contends that Santa actually exists — it’s too cruel to imagine that a real Santa would ignore good little children just because they have destitute parents, and yet a whole new shoehorned-in subplot revolves around precisely that scenario. It is also generally not recommended that a happy holiday flick feature an all-hands-on-deck North Pole sendoff for Santa on Christmas Eve that more resembles a Nuremberg rally than a Macy’s parade. It’s probably a good suggestion not to mutate Santa’s helpers into either Teamsters or soldiers under the command of Big Brother. Finally, no one should ever again attempt to create an animated version of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler in elf guise. Except perhaps in a horror film.

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