The Polar Express is definitely a descent into the Uncanny Valley, where human likeness in animation or robotics follows a curve, in which the human response to that likeness is measured in an emotional response. The so-called Uncanny Valley is the steep slide into an abyss of horror and emotional distress at the weirdly human, and yet weirdly un-humanness, of the entity in question. All that is to say that The Polar Express suffers from computer animation that is so close to being absolutely real, but not quite making it. The result is distracting, similar to a booger hanging like a chad from someone’s nose.
Where I should have been watching in wonder, I was instead gently chiding the screen, like the true “Mystery Science Theatre 3000″ fan that I am, mocking the film’s more bizarre aspects. Many questions about Santa’s operation in the North Pole abound, some of which might seem a bit impolitic. For instance, why does Santa seem to employ only Jewish elves? And does he actually “employ” them, or are they a sort of slave work force that exist outside normal realms of proper ethical labour practices? If they are slaves, then they have developed a weirdly fanatical, Stockholm syndrome-like attachment to their lord and master, one Messier Claus. And the fantastic city hidden away in the dead of the North Pole-was it built with my tax money?
You might say: Jeremiah, obviously, you missed the point of the story. What is the story? The original Chris Van Allsburg children’s book was quite a bit less involved than this Robert Zemeckis/William Broyles, Jr. adaptation. In the film, a small boy (Daryl Sabara) who doesn’t believe in Santa anymore is awoken by the arrival of the Polar Express, a night train to Santa’s domain in the North Pole. The conductor (Tom Hanks) is a kind but stern pseudo father figure who seems to have some trouble managing the train full of children. Along the way, the boy meets three other children who seem to meet some archetypal and possibly a demographic requirement. The wise black girl who becomes the leader, the know-it-all boy who needs a dose of humility, and the lonely, disappointed-one-too-many-times boy; all exhibit characteristics that the protagonist seems to have in himself.
The trip is a wild one, with the train careening around curves and up and down grades that would make an engineer cringe. In a particularly breathtaking bit of animation, the “camera” follows a golden ticket as it flies out of the hands of the boy into the open snow, only to be kicked up by wolves, whereupon it gets swept over the edge of a cliff. An eagle catches it and carries it up and over a stunning waterfall and to its nest, only to have its eaglet spit it out. It tumbles down in a growing snowball, landing on the train just as it comes through a tunnel. The sequence (and several others like it) are reminiscent of Zemeckis’ work on Forrest Gump; it’s clear he has just as much visual style in a fully CG environment as he does on a real-world shoot.
Through the experience of losing the girl’s ticket, the boy finds himself atop the train, where he meets a hobo, who dispenses strange, mocking wisdom and scalding, bitter “joe”. “Seeing is believing”, he tells the kid. It is strange advice, since the entire trip is a visual feast. What the boy really lacks is the ability to hear the bells, bells all the other children seem to have no trouble hearing. In the North Pole, the children find themselves lost in Santa’s vast city network of shops, production lines, factory floors, pneumatic tubes and strange tunnels where Christmas music is piped in via intercom. It’s weirdly comical to see the fruits of Santa’s magical labour presented as merely an advanced and slightly nostalgic 50′s style department store. Bells and whistles abound, but the magic seems misplaced.
The annual tradition is that at the gathering in the town square, Santa will choose one of the children to receive the hallowed First Gift of Christmas. Surrounded by teeming, creepily goateed elves, the boy at first can’t see when Santa’s gigantic form comes streaming out of the great hall. His frantic cries are almost chilling, and as he is losing hope, a single bell tears loose from the sleigh and lands at his feet. He still can’t hear the bells, and this single jingling artifact is silent as well as he turns his back and whispers to himself, “I believe, I believe, I believe.” It is a stirring and promising moment, and he is rewarded by a chiming, crystalline sound. He finally hears the bells!
He is then chosen by Santa to receive the first gift. He asks for the bell off of Santa’s sleigh, and being a kindly deity of some stripe, Santa proudly presents the single bell as the first gift of Christmas. It is a reminder of the boy’s doubt and faith in Christmas, for he keeps the bell, long after his sister and other children can no longer hear it. Of course, the bell never fails to ring for those who truly believe, and so the lesson ends.
What is most peculiar about this film is its semi-serious direction, which is couched in the most bizarre and ridiculous of circumstances, that it is difficult to take its message with anything but a large grain of Santa-blessed salt. The audience is asked to question, along with the boy, their own beliefs about things that are not seen. Zemeckis and company are not merely interested in reaffirming our belief that Christmas is a magical time, but ask some serious questions about faith, wonder, and ultimately what our belief in the unseen will be. Will we obsess over “seeing is believing”, or will we accept that some things can be both seen and unseen, and still remain as real as the things we surround ourselves with?
Yet the guise is confusing. Jewish elves, production lines, a train conductor who seems vaguely out of control, and psychotic dancing Mexican waiters serving violent blasts of hot chocolate to the nonplussed children seems somehow…off. There’s magic here, but not the kind you want touching your children. And the human animation, as impressive as it is, is just slightly off-kilter.
While the message and intent are spot-on, there’s just not enough to sustain through the entire picture, and for all the magic in the world, there’s just not enough to make me believe that thousands upon thousands of creepy, Jewish elves are a good thing for a child’s psyche.
Fringe Rating: out of 5