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The Polar Express is lovely, but oddly creepy

Updated on December 17, 2011

Some of you may know what I'm talking about when I mention the "Uncanny Valley." For those of you who don't, think about the picture that Napoleon sent to Trish to ask her out on Napoleon Dynamite.

The Uncanny Valley is the phenomenon where, as an image or object starts to look more and more human, it becomes more endearing, except for a sudden drop in appeal just before it hits that "oh-my-gosh-it-looks-so-real!" response. It's because as it looks more human, we identify more and more with it. But there comes that point where it looks just human enough to suggest "real", but that reality only serves to underscore the parts that are still not quite right and it ends up creeping us out.

That being said, there are moments during The Polar Express where the train seems to have dropped into the Valley and doesn't have enough steam to get itself out.

The movie follows a young boy whose name in the credits is actually Hero Boy (voice of Daryl Sabara / motion capture performance by Tom Hanks). One Christmas Eve, a giant train rolls up in front of his house and, being the rational sensible young man he is, he gets on because the creepy old conductor (Tom Hanks again) told him to.

They go to the North Pole and he learns to generically "believe". That's it. Just "believe".

The movie mostly works. The story isn't particularly deep but it's for kids so that's okay.

But there are simply moments throughout the movie where the CG characters just don't quite seem real enough. The movement of the arms may seem a bit clunky at times, but mostly it comes from the characters' eyes. It's absolutely amazing how much we humans connect with other humans through the eyes. But these characters frequently suffer from a simple but pervasive problem of realistic CG characters: Dead Eye.

Most of the time, there's no emotion in the eyes. They just look straight ahead with not even a twitch in the brows or lids. There's so much subtlety in how we use our eyes that when you do absolutely nothing, it just doesn't work.

There are also problems with mouths from time to time, but that pales in comparison to what isn't happening with the eyes.

This is computer animation. It's a generated medium. What we need is a bit more caricature. The animators really have to exaggerate some of the more subtle movements in order to compensate for the fact that we already know it isn't real. Because if you aim for 'reality', you fall short. To get the impression of reality, you have to aim a little bit beyond that.

Beyond that, the look of the movie actually is rather beautiful. It's designed to look like a kid's book and the use of light and shadow is wonderful. It's colorful and there are some nice songs.

And don't get me wrong. Zemeckis loves to push the technique of his craft, and we need people like that to stretch the minds of the audience and the technology available to the film makers themselves. But one side effect to that kind of boundary pushing is that you end up with elements that aren't quite up to snuff yet.

Still, the movie is enjoyable and fun. Kids will like the colorful look and the fantastic environment.

I rather like that the filmmakers don't really even attempt to explain what's going on. I mean, if a train came meandering down the street and stopped in front of your house, would you just stand there and look at it or would you be wondering "HOLY COW WHAT'S GOING ON HERE?!?!"

They throw Hero Boy into a bizarre situation without any explanation and I applaud that. They don't start with any sort of "Legend tells of a mysterious train that blah blah blah and such" or anything like that. Things just happen and we're presented with the choice to either accept that they do, or refuse to suspend that bit of our disbelief. And that helps punctuate the wonder of the entire story.

So while there are problems with execution, the movie still works overall.

This one gets a 7 / 10.

The Polar Express is rated PG for some mild action violence and situations of kids in danger.


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