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It’s everything I dreamed it would be.

Movie

The Polar Express
(2004)

 

The Polar Express careers along the uncanny valley, fuelled on fatal, carbon monoxide-rich festive fumes. I’d avoided this one for a decade, pretty good going, but I figured, since it was Robert Zemeckis, I ought to at least ticket-inspect it at some point. Representing the director’s first ill-conceived plunge into performance capture, an affliction that would last the best part of a decade (thankfully we were spared his Yellow Submarine remake), The Polar Express is exactly as hollow and dispiriting as I expected.

Worse, it’s the stuff of nightmares. Waxy, dead-eyed children climb aboard this adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book, powered by the thinnest and least charming of plotlines on their way to the North Pole. The stops fail to muster interest or evoke magic, the kids are downright disturbing, and Tom Hanks, essaying five different roles (this is his Dr. Strangelove, folks), is entirely lacking in presence or charisma.

One of his, besides the main conductor, is an especially unnerving Santa, who appears to be recovering from facial reconstructive surgery. The elves are freakish, and the array of both traditional and (rubbish) original Christmas tunes do nothing to staunch the rapid loss of merriment and cheer of anyone unfortunate enough to be distracted by the ghoulish spectacle. It’s evident from his subsequent ventures that Zemeckis’ motives and belief in performance capture were sincere, but they translate here into the most cynical, aesthetically distressing yuletide experience imaginable.

Not all such excursions are doomed to failure; Spielberg showed how it could be done with The Adventures of Tintin, and I might give The Polar Express that, just possibly, it has some level of merit when seen in 3D. But, if you have to watch it with goggles on to get anything from it, that’s Exhibit A in how lacking in nourishment the pixel feast is right there; one requires at least an approximation of a movie without it. Beowulf held a certain car-crash quality, whereby you could see certain things working amid the misconceived execution, and A Christmas Carol, despite being entirely redundant, is underpinned by solid source material. There’s nothing to recommend The Polar Express.

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