The Polar Express
By David Mumpower
November 9, 2004

Please don't bring up Ladykillers again.

Few Hollywood production strategems are as mechanically calculated as the holiday release. Each year's seasonal cycle sees a slew of would-be classics, all of which are anticipated to be the next A Christmas Story. The result is inevitable. Almost all of them are doomed to that level of failure best defined by already forgotten prior attempts such as Home for the Holidays, Jack Frost, and Eight Crazy Nights.

In point of fact, 2004 has already seen one such disaster in Surviving Christmas with another one soon to follow in Christmas with the Kranks. There is now a film to counterbalance the failures, though. The Polar Express is an insta-classic destined to remain a Christmas staple for the next quarter century or more.

The story is your garden variety Doubting Thomas tale. A young kid has begun to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. Such is his growing confidence that the entire idea of a gift-filled sleigh is a charade that he has even influenced his younger sister to question. Of course, in this cynical age, such behavior is not uncommon, so Kris Kringle has taken steps to address this growing international pathos of youth.

Enter The Polar Express.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a late night visit from the titular snow-covered train leads our Hero Boy on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. First, he is faced with the task of the seemingly impossible journey to the North Pole. Afterward, he must rediscover the faith he has lost and the ability to believe in that which is not tactile.

Helping Hero Boy on his journey are any number of atypical characters, almost all of whom are voiced by Tom Hanks. As the train's conductor, a roof-top hobo, and bearded fat man himself, Hanks is omnipresent in this pet project. And the hallmark of Hanks' quality is with him throughout the magical, other-wordly events.

Discussing more of the film's events would spoil the surprise of the unknown. So, suffice it to say that The Polar Express is one of the most impressive storytelling accomplishments in recent memory. The joy of never knowing what lies beyond the next set of train tracks never lapses. The evanescent sequences are impeccably timed to maximize the immediacy of a series of unforgettable moments occurring in rapid succession.

The real strength as well as weakness of The Polar Express is its use of a new animation technology called Performance Capture. Using this style of CGI, an actor is motion captured in such a manner that their every move is directly translated into the motion pictures. Tom Hanks is so easy to identify as the Conductor, because this is the most accurate available technical methodology of inserting his mannerisms directly into the code. For the most part, this immersive animation is jaw-dropping in its effectiveness.

There is, however, one notable exception. For whatever reason, mouth movements remain the holy grail of CGI animation. Historically, all attempts to animate humans have been comically inept. Movies such as Ice Age wind up offering absurd looking circular critters and call them people. Even the geniuses at Pixar have gone the Simpsons route with their animation of real people in The Incredibles. Cartoonish round features are much easier to bring to life than the angular traits that more appropriately define humans.

With this Performance Capture tech, The Polar Express does the best job thus far of representing physical features of people onscreen...right until the talk. When any of the characters open their mouths, the animation is so lagging as to create an emotional disconnect from what is being said. I do not claim to have the technical expertise to identify why this is the case, but there are several instances in the movie where the mouths move so inappropriately that the overall effect is downright creepy. The last thing anyone wants while watching a Christmas film is to get spooked, but the issues with speech have had exactly this effect on me more than once. What's tragic about this imperfection is that most of the animation is stunning, yet the one issue I have with it is what has stood with me since the screening.

Minor quibbles about the technology of animation aside, the selling point of The Polar Express is the story. At its core, this is a tale of an unbeliever trying to come to terms with that cynical aspect of his nature which causes doubt. The storytelling is evocative in how maturely the subject matter is evaluated while still maintaining a suitable tone for its intended core audience of very young children. Nothing is dumbed down here, and that alone makes it special among classic children's holiday fare.

The Polar Express is visually stunning throughout, has several fascinating insights into the nature of man, and offers crisp storytelling that sparkles with wit. The movie is without question one of the finest of 2004, a near-certainty to compete for Best Animated Film at the Oscars, and an insta-classic. It is the new yuletide answer to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.