Animated Word

Presenting an in-depth look at the current state of Animation

Chugging Through The Uncanny Valley on the "Polar"

If there was anything inside me left sensitive after viewing The Polar Express, it was my concern that my own dulled reaction to the film could possibly be blamed on my non-Christian heritage. I don't believe that to be the case, but there is definitely a possibility that Christmastime nostalgia will factor into one's enjoyment of the film, like the possibility that one's adherance to Christianity would influence one's response to The Passion of the Christ. But I'm not unfamiliar with Christmas. Jewish though I may be, I was raised in an atheist household that always has and always will celebrate Christmas (basically because everybody else was doing it), and so the feelings of family togetherness and the excitement of toys under the tree is just as much a part of my history as anyone's. Heck, I even believed in Santa Claus once. So have I just become too cynical? I truly don't believe so. Rather, I feel it is The Polar Express that fails to competently provide a real sense of magic for the holidays, or to at least express something meaningful about them.

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Of course, the main sticking point for everything one hears about this film is the filmmaking technique used to make it, called "performance capture". Motion capture is not new to animation; live-action reference has been around since Snow White. Films like Final Fantasy and The Lord of the Rings used a great deal of motion capture for the physical (read: non-facial) acting of their CGI characters. The Polar Express, from what I understand, has all of that and then also motion-captured the facial acting of actors like Tom Hanks and Nona Gaye, allowing the input of their acting to be applied to the CGI children of the film. With both face and body dictated by live-action actors, we really should just call a spade a spade: this film features CGI rotoscoping. This, at least, is not something we have seen before; Final Fantasy had whole teams of animators working on the facial acting of Aki and Grey, and while Andy Serkis' live-action performances were inspiration for the animators, they still animated every furrow of the brow themselves.

It is the rotoscoping element of the film that fails it. The characters are designed in a completely real fashion, leading towards the dreaded "uncanny valley" aftereffects. The term refers to the idea that, when designing animated human characters, you can only heighten their realism so far before it starts to just get really creepy - like heading over the top of a mountain and plummeting downhill into an uncanny valley. The reason why that is comes from the fact that certain subtleties of human expression cannot be granted to an animated character unless you're controlling every single muscle actually contained in the face and body. (Look at The Incredibles, which went towards stylization and ended up being entirely real via its own rules.) The characters in The Polar Express sure do look real, but their modes of facial expression are just plain hampered by the fact that "real" expressions caught on a motion-capture stage just don't come across through these CGI guys. Sometimes, I got a sense of what the actors were trying to do, especially with Tom Hanks' conductor and hobo characters, but a lot is lost in the translation. There are moments rendered completely incomprehensible by virtue of what the characters' faces are (or, more often, aren't) doing, like when the hero boy dives into a huge pile of coal and doesn't register a damn thing on his face about it.

The tech talk is necessary, because these characters are what the filmmakers have to convey the story to us. But that story's not that great anyway. The characters have no names, and so we are forced to classify them by their basic physical types or personalities. Hero Boy is just that, apparently, along with Hero Girl (whoever let that character get away with that mouth design should be fired). Lonely Boy is there for cheap "aww" moments, but fails to make any impact, since we never really learn anything about these characters anyway. The weirdest inclusion is the Know-It-All Boy, played exactly like Mandark of Dexter's Laboratory by the very same actor. Weird. The original book is pretty thin, and so everything's padded out with episodic mini-conflicts that resolve themselves within a few minutes of starting. Some films work okay with mini-conflicts; Schindler's List comes to mind. But The Polar Express insists on refusing its characters both complete identities and names or even cursory wit, and so it's required to function as an allegory. Allegories are a hell of a lot better when it can convince us that the major arc is a significant lesson. The big lesson for Hero Boy is that he should believe in Santa. This is where I start scratching my head. If a big train stops right in front of your house, has you on the passenger list, and claims to be heading to the North Pole, my guess is that your disbelief would dissipate fairly quickly. If not that, the elves, the huge mountain of presents, the guy who keeps disappearing on the train, and all those waiters that can flip over while still pouring hot chocolate would probably shake someone out of their cynicism. But this plot thread is stretched out way, way beyond the breaking point, just so it can be hammered home some more. Talk about a film achieving the opposite effect; I walked out more cynical than I was walking in.

The film is not an absolute failure. After all, Tom Hanks is a fine actor, and his adult characters work better than anything else in the film (like the aforementioned conductor and hobo). Better than that, his voice performances for those guys are pretty much the best things about the film. Here's a celebrity who knows how to do voice-over; not much of a surprise for the great actor behind Toy Story's Woody. The CGI on the characters is weird, but the designs are still technically very well-done; I marveled at an early close-up on Hero Boy's freckles. The CGI responsible for everything but the characters is fantastic, and so while it's not a well-"acted" film from an animation perspective, it's a very good-looking one. The songs are pretty uniformly boring, with the exception of the hilariously ridiculous hot chocolate song, entertaining for reasons wholly unintended by the filmmakers.

For my rating, I'm throwing on an extra half-star, because I suspect The Polar Express really wasn't meant to impress me. The film is barely a narrative, and more of a tour of Santa's Christmas operations coupled with some halfassed ruminations on why kids believe in Santa - well, maybe not why so much as they should. For this alone, I think kids might enjoy it, if they're not too confused or put-off by the weirdness of these characters and their faces. But while Roger Ebert insists that this film will become a classic across many generations, my conclusions were the absolute opposite. Kids might enjoy this now, in 2004, but in fifteen years they'll have moved on, and only the Christmas animated classics with real insight to the season will remain with them, like The Nightmare Before Christmas or A Charlie Brown Christmas. Sorry, parents. You'll have to sit through another piece of Santa propaganda for the sake of the kiddies.

Two and a half (**1/2) stars out of four (****)

A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on November 14, 2004

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