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Worth A Look: 12.7%
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9 reviews, 72 user ratings

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Polar Express, The
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by Robert Flaxman

"Scary hobo says: Believe in Santa, or else!"
2 stars

The Polar Express is the sort of film that adults make not realizing that its message has no real audience among children. Any kid old enough to have stopped believing in Santa Claus isn’t going to be drawn into the fold by a mere movie, and those young enough to still believe don’t need the film’s implied threats to have them bounding downstairs on Christmas morning.

The film also suffers from the same problem afflicting a lot of movies based on books for young children, which is that its source material is so minimal. Chris Van Allsburg’s book runs about 30 pages, many of which are engulfed completely by illustrations. Thus the movie starts with a very basic premise and has to fill it out, something it’s not exactly up to doing.

Most of the film is taken up with sequences that are clearly intended to play on IMAX screens; The Polar Express is the first film ever to be released simultaneously in regular and IMAX theaters. There are four or five distinct sequences that are shot as though the camera were on a roller coaster, and many scenes seem clearly designed for the effects that IMAX’s 3D would produce on them. In effect, there is no reason to see this film in a regular theater, since it is so clearly tailored to the IMAX patron.

More annoyingly, the film actually perverts Van Allsburg’s original idea – where his young boy hero wanted to believe in Santa but never had the evidence for it, the young boy hero in the film is a doubter whose mind must be changed. As such, the original book is a testament to the power of belief; the film wants to be, but it’s far better at trying to scare kids into believing.

One of the approximately nine hundred characters voiced by Tom Hanks is a strange ghost hobo who rides along with the train. (I know what you’re thinking – ghost hobo? Needless to say, it’s never explained.) In one scene, the main character wanders through a train car full of abandoned toys; the hobo begins to operate one of the puppets, yelling at the boy that he is the equal of Scrooge for not believing in Santa Claus. Are these scare tactics really necessary?

Worse still, the film presents a secondary character, a young boy named Billy from the “other side of the tracks”. Billy wants to believe in Santa Claus, but he says that Santa has never come to his house (the implication being that Billy’s family is too poor to afford presents). In the film, Billy naturally ends up with a giant present that is just what he’s always wanted. But what kind of message are we sending here? If you’re a kid whose family honestly cannot afford gifts, and you actually buy into this film, you’ll just end up getting your hopes up for nothing. Furthermore, if Santa was able to give the kid a present this year, where was he for the last seven or eight years of this kid’s life? Here we don’t even get the suggestion that believing in Santa is the only way to get presents – we get a notionally happy ending where the down-on-his-luck kid ends up with a gift, but there’s no explanation of why Santa passed him over so many times before. Robert Zemeckis and William Broyles Jr., the film’s screenwriters, clearly didn’t think this one through.

The Uncanny Valley effect is also at play. Initially developed for robotics, the principle states that people prefer more anthropomorphized figures, but at some point before getting to actual humans, there is a region where something that is not human looks so human that it becomes off-putting. Such is certainly the case here. The animation is at times very close to photo-realistic, but if it falls even a half step short of that, it ends up in a region where it just looks creepy. Most of the characters never really look quite right in all their movement, and the result is a lot of animation where the people look pretty human but jerk around just enough to really look strange. It gets even creepier when the animated characters clearly resemble the actors giving them their voices, such as most of the Tom Hanks characters (especially the hobo) and the elf who, for some reason, is played by Steven Tyler.

The film is still visually exciting at times, but these moments are forced to be in service of a plot that has to stretch across 90 minutes and was never equipped to do so. Aside from the roller coaster sequences, most of the plot is just a “what can go wrong next” sequence of events. Really, it makes Christmas seem very dangerous for kids, with all the trains derailing, kids having to walk across high, slippery bridges, etc. It doesn’t help that most of these moments come about because one of the kids makes a really stupid decision – but that’s a very adult criticism of the film. It’s too bad The Polar Express couldn’t have been one of those kids’ films where the only critiques are like that – they come over plot nitpicks that kids would never notice.

There’s some merit in the execution of The Polar Express, but it could have used a better framing device. It’s hinted during the film that everything is a dream, and if they insisted on changing the book’s main idea, it might have been wiser for the filmmakers to go that way. A film about the power of imagination is far more worthwhile than a film that tries to bully kids into believing in Santa Claus by telling them that they’ll get more presents if they do.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10918&reviewer=385
originally posted: 01/12/05 02:08:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Chicago Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell good christmas movie 4 stars
12/16/11 Liz Nice story, extremely creepy animation 2 stars
12/23/09 Shawn This film sucks. You need to be on acid to to make sense of it. 1 stars
12/13/09 RLan A good christmas movie. Best viewed by families. 4 stars
12/04/09 RK Yes, it's a little weird...but also very good. Love the 3 kids, esp the girl. 4 stars
1/22/09 Seinfeld Lover Yet ANOTHER great book ruined when it became a movie 1 stars
1/14/09 Anonymous. not many, if any, animated movies are like this one. 4 stars
9/16/08 Chad An absolutely perfect animated film, my all time favorite animated movie 5 stars
9/02/08 Shaun Wallner Great Kids Film! 5 stars
5/30/07 ES Zzzzz 2 stars
3/26/07 kathy underheart childress' review made be blow chunks. Yeah, the 'holiday classic' noone bothers with today 1 stars
12/28/06 David Cohen Eddie Deezan and wooden facial expressions bring down a potential classic 3 stars
12/24/06 dk Soulless but entertaining. 4 stars
12/02/06 Tangelo Soosepot Evokes winter. Takes the X out of X-mas and inserts creepy Santa. 2 stars
12/02/06 Mary Ruined not only a great book but the SPIRIT of Christmas too. 1 stars
12/01/06 M. Wolff An ugly, dead thing. This mushy horror could kill Christmas. 1 stars
9/28/06 Big Fan Best X-mas movie on the planet 5 stars
7/11/06 ian afford good to watch at xmas with the kids in booze fueled coma 3 stars
1/03/06 jeffrey blake great film,an animated feature that adults can enjoy 5 stars
12/15/05 Quigley the glacier gulch scene is worth $9. the movie is both stunning and occasionally emotional. 5 stars
12/15/05 Eden Soulless and empty, with creepy children 1 stars
12/13/05 Ginger I hated it! They took the book and RUINED it as a movie! It sucked!!! 1 stars
12/08/05 Phil M. Aficionado Stunning visually, but limp emotionally; and what is the point, exactlly? I missed it. 3 stars
12/07/05 someone special it sucked 1 stars
11/28/05 Melissa AWESOME!!! 5 stars
11/25/05 Thomas webb Great chistmas classic - Best in IMAX... 5 stars
11/23/05 Evil Wolfie I usually hate Christmas movies, but this was actually good. Go figure....... 4 stars
9/26/05 rafi not much of an adult movie , but still very nice.. 4 stars
9/21/05 Jonathon Holmes good movie, but not as good as "The Incredibles" 4 stars
7/04/05 mariann This is a must-see in 3D, at the IMAX theatres! Incredible and charming! 5 stars
6/06/05 Helen Bradley Very clever fast script Hanks awesome 5 stars
4/23/05 Quigley the glacier culch sequence is worth $9. could've been more emotional, but still a classic 5 stars
1/29/05 Frank Tells good movie 3 stars
1/29/05 Lisa Clarizio Creepy animation for christmas 2 stars
1/27/05 Jeff Anderson The greatest family holiday movie of ALL TIME! See it right away. A MUST SEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
1/07/05 shane brown held on to my seat train was faster than a roller coaster 5 stars
1/05/05 Scott Smith Awesome! An instant classic on a grand scale. 5 stars
12/28/04 Bill Masengarb Will become a Christmas classic. 5 stars
12/28/04 Natalie Stonecipher Falls pretty flat, even for lovers of train journeys and Santa Claus story. 2&1/2 stars. 3 stars
12/26/04 cindy parry Wonderful! saw it 3 times! 5 stars
12/17/04 Theresa Wagner great retelling of the book, nicely crafted 4 stars
12/12/04 Donna Cole Magical 5 stars
12/11/04 Michael Baldaccini This Movie is great Family fun. My kids love it! 5 stars
12/08/04 James Culp Great !Cartoon greatest effort in 70yr 5 stars
12/07/04 Michael AWESOME. SEE IT AT THE IMAX THEATER IN 3-D 5 stars
12/05/04 Mark D Fulwiler Disappointing 3 stars
12/02/04 Pau-red Didn't have an issue with the eyes, did you actually watch the movie or just the preview? 5 stars
12/02/04 Santa Makes "Gremlins" look like a classic !!! Bring back Gizmo and Stripe !!! 3 stars
11/30/04 Annie Best Christmas movie since Its a Wonderful Life 5 stars
11/27/04 chris. am i the only person who wasn't horrified by half of this movie?? 3 stars
11/26/04 Linda Jow Need to see it in IMAX 3-D, all t classes of 1st grader in our school loved it! 4 stars
11/22/04 alien assassin Great CGI...shame about the story 3 stars
11/22/04 Kristina Williams The eyes are too....damn...CREEPY!! 1 stars
11/20/04 Naka Nope! 1 stars
11/19/04 Melissa in New York WAY TOO EARLY FOR X-MAS! Drag a friend with you, make snide comments through the movie. 2 stars
11/18/04 Phillip Their eyes..............(shudder) 2 stars
11/18/04 egonz67328@aol.com Awesome! 5 stars
11/18/04 Atom All positive movie. Great. Nothing like the rest of the movies made today. 5 stars
11/16/04 Joesph Markshaft Its really crap the animation was worse than FF Spirits within 1 stars
11/16/04 Cool Leather Jacket bored out of my mind....zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz 1 stars
11/15/04 Dunce a slap in the face to *real* animation. ugly, ugly, ugly! 1 stars
11/15/04 April I would rather be shot (and quartered)than have to see this movie again 1 stars
11/15/04 rhody polished turd! 1 stars
11/13/04 Danny 3D version is revolutionary, a different movie 5 stars
11/13/04 Nadia I didn't like it. Could it be because I don't believe? Oh no! 2 stars
11/11/04 Kelly Amazing! Take a ride and believe and laugh and have a blast! best time in a long time! 5 stars
11/11/04 Scott Carter Rotten and only for kids under 3 1 stars
11/11/04 Drew Cosbie GREAT FAMILY FILM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
11/10/04 ted pakozdi incredible 5 stars
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  10-Nov-2004 (G)
  DVD: 22-Nov-2005



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