In just short of a month, Walt Disney Studios is set to release 'Tron: Legacy,' which is not only the latest film to use performance-capture to create virtual characters, but the first to actively try and create a character who looks and acts like someone audiences know. Whether or not the film ultimately conquers this considerable challenge remains to be seen, but the film's imminent arrival in theaters is a reminder that the technology used to accomplish its artistic goals is still in the earliest days of its existence. And while Jar Jar Binks and Gollum are certainly progenitors of this technique, it seemed more appropriate (not to mention timely) to instead focus on the first film that used entirely performance capture in order to create its cast: 'The Polar Express.'
At the time of its theatrical release, I thought Robert Zemeckis' film was weird and kind of creepy looking, and wondering why kids would have any interest in something that ostensibly seemed more like an artistic exercise than a piece of entertainment. And then I saw it. 3D was also a burgeoning phenomenon, but the combined sensory experience of seeing it leap off the screen and envelop me with the kind of enormity that only an IMAX theater can deliver, I truly loved it, thanks in no small part to my own sentimental attachments to the holiday season.
More recently, Warner Home Video released the film on Blu-ray as one of the first titles made available for 3D home exhibition; and even though I don't yet own an entertainment system that allows me to watch it in more than two dimensions, I was very curious to see whether 'The Polar Express' was still an engaging and involving opus or if it was a frigid reminder of how far performance-capture storytelling has since come.
The Facts: Originally released on November 10, 2004, 'The Polar Express' earned $181 million domestically, which is only slightly more than its $170 million budget, but it also grossed some $120 million in the rest of the world, putting it in the black and virtually ensuring that it will be shown at IMAX theaters and on TV during holiday seasons to come. The film earned three Academy Award nominations, including for Best Song, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing, and its centerpiece song, "Believe," was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Song. Meanwhile, the film maintains a decidedly underwhelming 56 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, owing (according to various critics) to its sentimentality, dead-eyed characters and overall theme-park-ride feel.
What Still Works: Although critics certainly have a point about the soulless eyes of many of the characters, the quality of the animation as a whole is stunning, and the movie looks absolutely gorgeous. Even still in its relative infancy, the performance capture, well, captures several moments that are virtually indistinguishable from the movement and weight of real-life people, and the textures and rhythms of reactions are consistently believable even if they aren't always real. For example, the sight of Hero Boy stumbling awkwardly through the snow truly evokes that feeling of uneven, unsteady ground, and on two or three occasions, wide shots of the Conductor look like the filmmakers either rotoscoped right over actual footage of Tom Hanks, or just shot him in costume and then gussied up the image with some CGI trickery.
Its technical merits notwithstanding, I do think there's something genuinely beautiful about a story whose message is believing in good things, and not subscribing to doubt or cynicism. Beyond even its immediate context of the plausibility of Santa Claus, the film's story applies to cinema itself – the idea that we can of course dissect and deconstruct technique and style and storytelling, and we're not wrong to do so, but that knowledge sometimes comes at the cost of our emotional engagement, and more specifically, our investment in the reality of what we're watching. There's something really powerful about Hero Boy's ongoing skepticism as a reminder of the cost of our own maturity, that loss of innocence and pure belief in something magical, and that it is paid off in a way that feels satisfying but also bittersweet.
What Doesn't Work: Structurally, the story is pretty featherweight, and indulges in a few spectacle-heavy sequences in order to pad out the running time rather than providing something more compelling. In particular, the film features at least three separate roller coaster-esque scenes, and after the first one, they feel really conspicuous as padding, but by the time the kids find themselves on a runaway train car at the heart of the North Pole, it feels like total overkill. Meanwhile, Zemeckis' cinematographic exercises, including swooping camera shots that zoom over, under and around the train, and sometimes literally move underneath the ground characters walk on, similarly feel excessive, even if technically-speaking they're kind of cool.
And finally, yeah, the characters' eyes feel dead. This is something that has sort of been resolved in more recent films, especially 'Avatar,' where the performance capture literally drove every aspect of the CGI characters the actors embodied, but as one of the first computer-animated films to try and create realistic human textures, it still suffers from that specific kind of one-dimensionality.
What's The Verdict: I really think that 'The Polar Express' holds up. It's not a movie I may want to watch every Christmas, and it doesn't necessarily have the timelessness of other holiday classics that always seem to draw audiences in. But if I'm in a particularly sentimental mood – as I was when I saw it recently – it defies all of iyts shortcomings and really works on all counts. Again, I feel like in an era where everything is so completely explained and explored and revealed and (especially) demystified, it is important to remind kids that there is value in believing in some things that are good and keep them hopeful and open-minded, just as it is important to remind adults that kids need their imaginations and their feelings nurtured.
Of course, you may be precisely the kid who most needs his or her imagination to be nurtured, but as an alternative to the more conventional-looking holiday films you can watch at the end of each year, 'The Polar Express' is something of a minor classic.