The Polar Express absolutely yearns to be regarded as a perennial “holiday classic.” It wears not only its heart on its sleeve but also both lungs and a kidney. It certainly shares a lot of themes and ideas with other holiday favorites and that’s part of the problem. Story-wise, there’s not a lot new here. There’s not much that isn’t new, either. That’s another part of the problem.
The hero of the movie, an unnamed boy with voice by Daryl Sabara and motion-captured movements courtesy of the Tom Hanks, is a completely reactive, passive character save for one decision made late in the film. Literally and figuratively, he’s just along for the ride. That makes it hard to get involved in his problem, which amounts to not being sure he still believes in Santa Claus.
As you might have heard, The Polar Express is a computer animated movie made using a new technique called “performance capture,” where an actor’s movement’s and facial expressions are mapped by a camera and applied to a computer model. This technology seems quite promising but, frankly, it needs work.
The characters on the screen, while superficially life-like, all have perpetual thousand yard stares and their faces are strangely immobile, as if the Polar Express were a train full of pre-pubescent plastic surgery patients. This gives them a stylized not-quite-realistic quality that is, on one hand, stunningly beautiful to look at and, on the other, just plain creepy and distracting. The movie looks for all the world like a 90-minute cut scene from a computer game, only with better voice acting (to be expected with Hanks providing half of the character voices).
The computer game motif applies a bit to the story, too, where the titular train’s journey to the North Pole plays out like a series of puzzles to be solved, such as “pull the engineer’s beard to move the caribou off the train track.” It’s like a Myst game that you don’t actually get to play. As a result, the story seems very linear and not all that involving. Additionally, the distractingly unreal look of the characters continually pulled me out of my suspension of disbelief.
Of course, I’m about thirty years older than the target audience, so maybe this film would enthrall a ten-year-old and I’m just a scroogy old movie critic. I’ve been called worse.