Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express was a Ride too Deep Down the Uncanny Valley.

by Paul Deeter

It's officially December of 2021! Where did the time go, and what do we do now to celebrate such a strange aftershock of a dismal beginning to a new decade? 2021 gives unfortunately no clear sign as to when the best time to go out to the theaters consistently for our Christmas movies is, or when it will be safe to travel again for our family visits. The best way to celebrate Christmas for myself has always been with movie nights with others even following a busy trip to the cinema. While its not entirely unmanageable to see family or friends this year, we here at Purely Kino encourage safe movie practices and social distancing into 2022. The best movies to watch during Christmas are classic films, and a lot of these classic films including It's a Wonderful Life for example, are also family films. So unless you're a hardcore horror fan and seek out films like Krampus for the season, or want to do Die Hard (which will always be a Christmas film to me) you may want to enjoy the season with an appropriate for-all feature. I could and possibly might do a Christmas season series that dives into some of our favorites here at PK, but I'm going to start with a how-to-not f**k up the Christmas spirit film: Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express.

The Polar Express is an experiment into innovation that truly has no room for forgiveness in its critical failings. It's a 2004 feature by Robert Zemeckis who had already brought us stone cold classics like the Back to the Future films and Forrest Gump. Suffice it to say, Zemeckis and his collaboration with Sony Pictures Imageworks had the talent and expertise required to pull off a film of such grandeur, and yet could not prevent the trainwreck that followed. That being said, The Polar Express was a financial success, making most of its money back domestically on its launch (2nd only to The Incredibles of the same weekend) and reaping a lot of viewership on its DVD and syndicated launch. Additionally: It appeared at No. 3 in the "25 Highest-Grossing Christmas Movies of All Time at the U.S. Box Office" list by Forbes, placed after Home Alone and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. So by most accounts its a success, but not one that was received well on Rotten Tomatoes on release with a 58% accumulated reception. And while not tipping the scales too unfavorably for the film's release, critics would respond with the consensus that the film's use of photorealistic CGI was too bizarre for children.

CGI Tom Hanks is fed up with these creepy kids, too.

The term that sums up the issue with the movie is the "uncanny valley", which is defined on Wikipedia as...

a hypothesized relation between an object's degree of resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to the object. The concept suggests that humanoid objects that imperfectly resemble actual human beings provoke uncanny or strangely familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. "Valley" denotes a dip in the human observer's affinity for the replica, a relation that otherwise increases with the replica's human likeness.

A lot of people connect the beginning of the uncanny valley to CGI animation in modern films, but it denotes back to a term coined for the evolving issue of human-like qualities in AI. Computers passing the Turing test would be a theoretical parallel, while the 'valley' instead discusses what the mind perceives and what aesthetically causes ambiguity between what's real or not. The term would most popularly come to be claimed in reaction to the breakthroughs of animation by Pixar. Toy Story (1995) is considered the first feature to struggle with this issue, as it was Disney's foray into CGI animation that perplexed some viewers while entrancing others. The production company would initially struggle specifically with the humanoid characters like Sid the bully from the first Toy Story. While the toys could be glossied up to look silly or have exaggerative features next to each other, the people in the film had to look "real" in some way by comparison. Pixar wanted to create a magic here that could connect the children of the audience to the children on screen, but had to do so, and still has to do so without falling into the eeriness of the valley.

In an article on Medium Amelia Settembre discusses: "uncanny valley is the group of CGIs that look creepy, or more simply, wrong. This happens because the goal of CGIs is to make something look more realistic, either more life-like or maybe more human. She would go onto mention The Polar Express as a key example of this, and the unknown future of CGI and its depiction of humans. "On top of that, our brains search images automatically for human faces. Just take a peak at the image below and see if you can spot something that looks human, like a face." With CGI, innovation is the purpose of making things come to life, as original animated features did with paint to paper work. In defense of Zemeckis' film it came out years into the success of films like Finding Nemo and Toy Story 2, which could only come under the slight criticism of nailing everything visually outside its human subjects. But Pixar made the right move in its innovation, and with its next to life realistic use of lighting and color effects, it always keeps a cheesy hokey look to the human characters' faces and body-types. So with a growing landscape of saminess (a term I use a lot these days) among the looks of movies that vied to steal audiences away from Disney, The Polar Express came out in an attempt to try something completely different.

The movie was developed with the intent to fall somewhere underneath live action imagery and fairy tale like graphics, from its 1985 children's story adaptation. With that in consideration to the fact that the budget of $160 million dollars would be ever more increased with live action shooting of its big set-pieces, the movie used motion-capture technology not unlike that used for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings' movies. The voice actors would actually act out each scene, their expressions captured life-like for the film, and giving each character a deeper sense of mood. And clearly, some of that worked quite well in the film's favor; I believe there was an audience outside of children fascinated by how far CGI technology had come for this film. But critically, and famously, the film would be criticized for this same technology. "Several reviewers of the 2004 animated film The Polar Express called its animation eerie. reviewer Paul Clinton wrote, "Those human characters in the film come across as downright... well, creepy. So The Polar Express is at best disconcerting, and at worst, a wee bit horrifying". The term "eerie" was used by reviewers Kurt Loder and Manohla Dargis. among others. Newsday reviewer John Anderson called the film's characters "creepy" and "dead-eyed", and wrote that "The Polar Express is a zombie train". Ironically enough, the animation that so commonly works for the valley is used in video-games more successfully, including a game adaptation of this film of the same year.


While there are conflicting science definitions to why the uncanny valley causes us such discomfort or distrust, the mood is not universal. Some scientists would argue its in part to the desire to find humanism anywhere, others say it could be our own fear of mortality or trust issues that cause us to be weary of semi-humanism. There's no conclusion to this issue, but its always going to be a struggle for animators. I'd say that this is an struggle that should be left without a clear solution. When people say that some things just don't age well animation is a good example of that, and cartoons will probably never find perfection. And that's okay. Let the Christmas classics be classic not for their attempts to be modern, but instead for fitting in exactly where they need to be: a time to bundle up with the family inside and warm and safe and sound.

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