It seems like there was a moment of head scratching when The Polar Express tanked. It was as though all the CG wizards and Hollywood bigwigs just couldn’t believe that no one wanted to look at their baby. Well here’s why: like the baby on Seinfeld, The Polar Express is breathtaking… as in hideous. You immediately want to look away, and forcing yourself to watch is like a strange form of torture. It offends the senses on a visceral level. In short, it’s flippin’ icky.
Somehow I imagined that The Polar Express couldn’t possibly be all that bad, so I settled in with good intentions. The little CG boy immediately started to bother me, because he looked like someone real that I couldn’t put my finger on. Finally I decided it was a circa 1982 Jason Bateman, so we’ll just call him Jason.
Jason’s belief in Santa Claus is wavering, much to the horror of his parents, but when a strange train pulls up in the front yard, he gets right on. Woo-woo! “All aboard!” Strangely, the Conductor sounds and looks just like Tom Hanks, as did Jason’s dad… as does every other man in this movie. Oh dear. It quickly becomes apparent that unless he’s saying “Sunny, Sunny, Sunny” on Bosom Buddies, Tom does not have the most enjoyable voice. In fact no one in The Polar Express has a very nice voice. They’re all shrill and grating, and now the movie has two strikes against it. You want to cover your eyes and plug your ears.
It wouldn’t be fair to judge The Polar Express on appearances alone, but I found the story itself a little ominous and unsettling. When was the last time a bunch of unsuspecting people were packed onto a train without knowing the destination? Hmm, am I the only one who flashes to Nazi Germany? Am I wrong to worry about the fate of these Scroogey children? At first there’s no real indication that they’re going to see Santa. There’s just this weird conductor, who is alternately friendly and stern. Where is he taking them?
I assume they make it to the North Pole and meet Santa, as there is a charming, sparkly picture of it on the back of the video box, but I did not get there with them. Shortly after some sort of whirling dervish comes out singing loudly and serving cocoa, I had to give up. I was on the verge of a panic attack, and the one way to avoid it was to press Stop/Eject on the VCR. I had to use Tommy Boy as a mental palate cleanser, and let me tell you, I have never been so happy to see Chris Farley’s “fat guy in a little coat” routine.
The unfortunate thing about this particular style of computer animation is that it’s too real to be appreciated as art, and too creepy to be real. Tom Hanks talked about the elaborate technology used to create the characters (similar to the process used to make Gollum) when he was on Oprah to promote the movie. He made a joke that he hoped all the electronic sensors he wore on his face wouldn’t cause cancer or anything, and I hear him loud and clear. Imagine compromising your safety for a freak show like this!
To CG animators everywhere, I would just like to offer a warning that should have been heeded by the builders of atomic bombs and the inventors of New Coke—just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Think of all the little CG children crying themselves to sleep at night, sobbing, “I coulda been claymation! Or animatronic! Or hand illustrated! Why, lord, why am I computer generated?” Be kind to the children, computer whizzes. Some day they may come back to haunt you.