The Polar Express


A few years back I wrote a piece called FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN (working title: BORING: THE MOVIE). It is available on this web sight as well as in my collection 5 On the Outside. In the piece I talked about the wrongness of computer animators trying to create photorealistic human characters. I argued that no matter how real they looked they would never look completely real, because they wouldn’t be able to walk quite right, or have a human soul, etc. I guess I didn’t mention it in that piece but there was a scene in the movie where two realistic human characters kissed, and it was like watching mannequins go at it.

(For your information, there’s a porno called REAL DOLL: THE MOVIE where pornographic professionals like Ron Jeremy stick their penises inside ten thousand dollar silicone sex dummies. That movie is disturbing in a different way from FINAL FANTASY because the dolls are not moving and their faces don’t look alive. So it looks like these guys are having their way with dead bodies. But picture two of the dolls going at it with no animate objects involved. Then picture a rated PG version of that. That’s the scene in FINAL FANTASY, I guess. It’s not natural.)

Well nobody seemed to care back then but now many of the ideas I presented in that piece have worked their way into the mainstream, as reviewers of the new computerfied Robert Zemeckis Christmas fantasy THE POLAR EXPRESS have criticized the creepy, dead eyed look of its overly realistic computerized cartoon characters. Japanese roboticists have even expanded on my theories, calling it “the uncanny valley” where your ability to relate to a robot or cartoon character suddenly plunges as it gets closer to humanity. So Mickey Mouse is our buddy but final fantasies give us the willies.

The Polar ExpressTHE POLAR EXPRESS is a big pile of technological show offery which uses many methods no ordinary human being could defend. Why exactly would anybody make a movie starring actors, with computer animated characters made to look as much as possible like the actors? Couldn’t we just eliminate the middle man and have actors? The movie was made I guess by having Tom Hanks and the other guy from Bosom Buddies wear magic space suits that control computer characters within the world of the computer (or “matrix,” or “tron.”) So it’s not really animation as much as it is a high tech puppet show. You got the STAR TREK prequels then SKY CAPTAIN and then this is the next step, but it’s still not quite a cartoon.

The one and only way to see this movie is in Imax 3-D where available. This gimmick amplifies the creepiness of the movie but also makes it into a long theme park ride, a series of artfully designed dioramas, rollercoasters and waterslides. The people don’t look entirely real, but neither do the fuckin pirates or haunted mansions, do they? It’s amazing how far a big set of battery powered goggles will go to make ol’ Vern forgive and forget the valley of the uncanny dolls. I mean for the most part this is a well told kiddy fantasy story with great atmosphere, so I didn’t mind zooming around peering through windows and cracking through ice and watching the pretty 3-D snowflakes fall. I’m as surprised as you are that I am here to tell you that when it’s in 3-D, it’s really not that bad.

But I guess I can take partial credit for this one. I know in my heart, and I think you know this also, that Robert Zemeckis read my FINAL FANTASY piece. He still went the wrong way (just make cartoon characters look like cartoon characters, asshole! It’s not hard to figure out) but at least he learned from my other final fantasy criticisms.

    1. The walk. You’ll remember my main complaint was that they would never duplicate the human walk. The crafty bastard did just that by capturing the actual human walk into the brain of a computer. They still have problems with characters looking weightless standing on top of a high speed train but at least their legs move at the right speed.
    2. The voices. One of the most ridiculous aspects of Final Fantasy was hearing recognizable celebrity voices coming out of realistic human faces that do not match the celebrity. So Steve Buscemi’s voice comes out of a boyish Jason Priestley type. Having read my piece, Zemeckis made all of the characters voiced by Tom Hanks actually look like Tom Hanks, so it wouldn’t be too distracting. It’s more like he’s pulling a Peter Sellers. Glad I could help bud.

This is a children’s fantasy story about a kid with no name who is starting to not believe in Santa Claus. He wants to believe but does not, so I guess he’s agnostic. It’s Christmas Eve, he’s laying in bed and the magic of Imax 3-D makes you feel like you’re hovering 4 inches away from his rubbery-skinned, milky-eyed face. Made me kind of uncomfortable. But to be fair, the animation on the kid is not that bad. His voice is the kid from SPY KIDS, who is a good kid actor but is he a two time academy award winner? Fuck no. So they got Tom Hanks to do the movements. The kid from SPY KIDS does not have the kind of acting experience required to move like a real kid. Tom Hanks does. Sorry kid from Spy Kids, maybe come back when you’re older. You’re a voice actor, leave the motion performance to the grown ups.

Anyway, a huge train shows up right next to his house, and a Tom Hanks Engineer sort of hassles the Tom Hanks kid into getting on. There are other kids there and the thing is headed for the North Pole for reasons nobody has explained. The Tom Hanks engineer is concerned that they might be late, which would somehow ruin Christmas. And the kid keeps fucking things up, pulling the emergency break or losing a girl’s ticket out the window or risking a horrible death by climbing around on top of the fast moving train. The engineer is no Willy Wonka but it’s the same kind of magical/threatening children’s story. At one point they even think he’s gonna toss a little girl off the back of the train because the kid lost her ticket.

Along the way of course, a bunch of magical shit happens. The kid (Tom Hanks) meets a hobo (Tom Hanks) who has a campfire on top of the train and gives him a drink of disgusting dirty coffee. It later turns out the hobo is a ghost, which of course means the kid drank ghost coffee. That definitely raises alot of questions about the digestion of ghost coffee but unfortunately we will never really learn the deal with that unless maybe there’s a part 2.

I would also like to mention that the computerists have not yet found a way to duplicate the human mustache.

For the most part, the characters did not look as creepy as I was expecting. At least the main kid wasn’t. But then he gets on the train and this little girl is smiling at him. And I don’t know what they did but I swear to christ this little girl character looks like she has 2 glass eyes. Other than that, she looks great. But the two glass eyes kind of freaks you out. Maybe this was intentional, and there is some implied backstory of dual eye injury that ties in to the magic of jingle bells or whatever, I don’t know. I have read alot of the bible but not all of it.

ANyway I was going right along with it, but as soon as I got to the girl with the glass eyes I started to lose my connection to the computer world. I started to go offline. And suddenly I realized that these were not actual kids. They moved exactly like actual kids but they didn’t look right. And I realized what they were was kids dipped in molten rubber, then airbrushed and wigged and given glass eyes. So there are actual little kids in there controlling the rubber outer layers from within. What a weird fucking thing to do, Zemeckis.

Somebody in hollywood has to figure out that they gotta take advantage of this. These filmatists are trying to make realistic humans and accidentally made them creepy. So why not use this technology for a character who is actually supposed to be creepy? I think Stanley Kubrick actually wanted to do that in A.I. but since Final Fantasy did not exist yet I’m not sure if he really understood what a great idea he had. (And why the fuck do these mad computer scientists think that a horrible computer/cartoon abomination like Garfield or Shrek is CUTE? I know you guys stare at numbers all day but jesus, you must be fucked in the head trying to pull that shit.)

Anyway, after a brief rubber kid induced panic attack I got used to the computer people again and from then on it was okay. They do the best job on the two train workers who keep trying to fix the lights or the brakes as the train and its occupants hurtle towards magical yuletide doom. They are a little more cartoony than the kids are (one of them hangs from the other guy’s long beard) and they really seemed to me like Pirates of the Caribbean – 3-D and rubber but created by artists, not scanned into computers.

But there are a couple other problems with the movie. There are a couple of musical numbers, which fits in this kind of story, but most of the songs are awful. The only part I liked in the sappy kid duet on the back of the train was when the retarded guy sitting in front of me started to unexpectedly sing along. The actual score, by Alan Silvestri, is easier to take. I don’t know about you but I think the score for EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is a good wintery piece of music, so it was a good idea for Silvestri to blatantly rip off that score for this movie.

And by the end it is easy to overload on talk about The True Meaning of Christmas and Believing In Santa Claus and the Magical Magic of Christmas Magic and Crap. Even though they are more restrained about that shit than you expect them to be.

I gotta mention also, there is something a little weird about a movie where Tom Hanks is hiding behind every wall. In this movie, you are Tom Hanks, your dad is Tom Hanks, you get a ride from Tom Hanks, then you meet the ghost of Tom Hanks, you find out Santa Claus is Tom Hanks, and you even grow up to have the voice of Tom Hanks. One of the very few people who is NOT Tom Hanks is Steven Tyler, who has a cameo as a singing elf. So it is easy to wish that it was a complete Hanksworld. Other than that cameo the filmatists carefully created an old fashioned world with Roy Rogers slippers, classic space pajamas and vintage Christmas carols playing on vinyl and piped into every corner by, well, pipes. But I guess they figured Steven Tyler is hundreds of years old and could really be from almost any time period.

There is also something a little off about Santa when you see him at the end. His face is a thin and pale Tom Hanks and he has a holy glow that makes him look part Santa, part Jesus. He seems like a nice guy though. He gives kids presents and all that. I should probaly leave him alone.

This time of year everybody wants a piece of that christmas magic. At the Seattle center where I went to watch this movie there was a sign for the Washington Mutual Holiday Ice Rink. What better way to celebrate the birth of Jesus and/or Santa Claus than to ice skate indoors in honor of a particular bank. Also Camel cigarettes has just introduced delightful new limited edition warm toffee and mochamint flavors that create the type of yuletide cancer the Lord probaly would’ve wanted to die from if he hadn’t gotten nailed to that cross for our sins. (Mel Gibson’s dad, if you’re reading this, notice that I did NOT say nailed to the cross by the jews. you need help dude.)

I kind of expected POLAR EXPRESS 3-D to be the same kind of christmas magic, the kind that comes with tie-ins and coupons and is made by computers for $150 million and is uncomfortable and weird to look at. But I think the baby Jesus will be happy to hear that it’s not all that bad. It really isn’t a shitstain on His holiday. I’m not saying Jesus would like it necessarily, but obviously he would forgive it. Me too, Jesus. Me too.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 10th, 2004 at 11:50 am and is filed under Cartoons and Shit, Family, Fantasy/Swords, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

One Response to “The Polar Express”

  1. I know it’s weird to leave a comment on this Xmas abomination right before Halloween, but it’s a testament to the human spirit that just days after Vern mourned about the ’04 shit show election, he is able to rise up and write a truly hilarious review of this bizarre screen saver of a movie. The section about everybody being Tom Hanks had me in tears.

    I know you might not like some of your older columns, Vern – but this is one of your best.

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