The Polar Express and The Incredibles

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, December 6 2004


A quarter billion dollars worth of computer animation hits the theatres in Robert Zemeckis' Christmas pageant "The Polar Express" and Pixar's superhero action comedy "The Incredibles."

Zemeckis has been overshadowed by his mentor Steven Spielberg, but a surprisingly strong case can be made that the 52-year-old is one of the great directors ever. Zemeckis has made terrific films in a variety of genres from the crass but viciously funny "Used Cars," to the all-American comedy "Back to the Future," to the nearly silent adventure "Cast Away." In "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and "Forrest Gump," he introduced technical breakthroughs while delivering old-fashioned satisfactions.

With "The Polar Express," Zemeckis spends $160 million to attempt two innovations at once: to use motion capture technology so Tom Hanks can act out six different characters, and to stay true to the tissue thin story in Chris Van Allsburg's 1985 children's book. For once, unfortunately, Zemeckis overreaches.

Van Allsburg writes and paints the kind of hardcover picture books that win the Caldecott Medal, bedtime books that, at $18.95 each, only grandparents can afford. This format tends toward bland multiculturalist fare of the Lo-Ming and N!xau Celebrate Cinco de Mayo ilk that libraries feel obligated to buy, but Van Allsburg creates mysterious, sometimes sinister tales that kids actually enjoy.

When Van Allsburg's Jumanji was made into a 1995 Robin Williams picture, the paucity of his plot required the screenwriters to tart up the movie with an elaborate backstory. His Polar Express is even sketchier, consisting, along with his lovely but oblique paintings, of no more than a few hundred words. On Christmas Eve, a boy who is not sure he believes in Santa Claus anymore finds a magic train in front of his house, which takes him to the North Pole where Santa gives him a bell from his sleigh.

Zemeckis add a few characters, some rollercoaster action, and two musical numbers, but, on the whole, he stoically resists injecting conflict, motivation, humor, or even incident into the soporific storyline, which Van Allsburg devised, after all, to lull excited children to sleep on Christmas Eve.

Optical sensors recorded the adult actors' movements and then used this 3-d data to animate the children. That Hanks plays six characters, only one of whom looks remotely like him, is an amazing technological feat. That he is charming only as the most Tom Hanks-like character, however, suggests that there wasn't much point to this stunt.

The outdoor scenes are as gorgeous as you'd hope for $160 million, but the blue reflections off the snow make the animated children's faces look clammy, giving them gray teeth.

While placid, the G-rated "The Polar Express" is pleasant and unobjectionable. It's endorsement of the will to believe is in tune with the times. It's even mildly admirable for bucking the "War against Christmas" waged by the bureaucrats to replace Christmas with a diversity-sensitive "Winter Solstice Holiday" -- a top-down cultural revolution opposed by 50 million Christmas-loving children. Now, that could inspire an exciting Christmas fantasy.

Brad Bird is just four years younger than Zemeckis, and may be his equal in talent -- he has an eye for movement that rivals Chuck Jones'. Yet, Bird's career (consisting primarily of 1999's under-promoted "Iron Giant") had been as frustrating as Zemeckis' has been triumphant.

Bird's pours his anger toward the forces of mediocrity into the PG-rated (but wholesome) "The Incredibles," his sensational slam-bang tale -- as overstuffed with fun as "Polar Express" is undernourished -- of Mr. Incredible, a crime-fighting big lunk and his stretchy bride, Elastigirl, who are forced by predatory plaintiff's attorneys and growing political correctness into a government relocation program. "When everyone is special, no one is," grumbles the lovable homo superior.

Fifteen years later, they are trying to maintain a low profile in suburbia with a mortgage and three kids. Mr. Incredible works as a lowly claims adjuster who can barely squeeze his massive, but increasingly flabby, torso into his tiny cubicle.

Then, the superhero business calls again, but does he dare tell Mrs. Incredible he's squeezing back into the old tights?

Superheroes normally have wards or nephews because real kids hate to imagine their own parents engaging in derring-do. Bird wisely sidesteps this by having the couple's daughter raise to her younger brother the specter of the only fate that scares modern children more than death - divorce: "Mom and Dad's lives could be in danger, or worse -- their marriage!"


Steve Sailer ( is a columnist for and the film critic for The American Conservative.


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