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Ticket to Ride

[Click here to read John Benson's comments on the Imax 3-D version of The Polar Express, and here to read Kim Weston's take on Imax 3-D in general, with side comments on Chicken Little in 3-D.]

I waited almost two months to see The Polar Express, doubting that I even had a reason to see it. The most credible reviewers, like Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, were not encouraging, and the film's vaunted motion-capture technology—which permitted Tom Hanks to play multiple roles—looked like no improvement over the kind of mo-cap that made Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within so painful to watch in 2001.

Polar Express DVDIn mo-cap, an actor's movements are converted, by means of sensors, into a computer simulation. Mo-cap is a close cousin to the much older technique called rotoscoping, which involves tracing from frames of live-action film, and mo-cap ordinarily suffers from rotoscoping's fatal defect, a failure to discriminate. Choosing what to include and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what to play down, is essential to good animation, and to good caricature especially, and rotoscoping and mo-cap both resist that process of selection.

When Hanks and Robert Zemeckis, Polar Express' director, talked about the film, they took pains to distinguish their version of mo-cap from real character animation, which they clearly regarded as inadequate to the film's challenges. They celebrated mo-cap because it permitted Hanks to play five very different characters, including a middle-aged conductor, a boy, a hobo, and Santa Claus. Once the rudiments of Hanks's performances had been captured by the computer, the artists and technicians at Sony Imageworks clothed those computer simulations in three-dimensional character designs that looked little or nothing like the actor himself. I knew, though, that there was no way that mo-cap could reproduce the nuances of expression and gesture that make a performance by Hanks, or any other good actor, distinctively individual.

It seemed inevitable, then, that Polar Express would fall into what animators call the "uncanny valley"—that is, the characters would closely resemble real people, but they would be just different enough that audiences could not help but notice the difference and be made uncomfortable by it. Final Fantasy was just such a near-miss, and, I judged from the ubiquitous clips on television, Polar Express was fated to be another.

When I saw the film, though, I quickly concluded that mo-cap was a red herring. True, the characters do have an initially alienating robotic or zombie-like appearance. In his illuminating audio commentary on the DVD of Disney's Pollyanna, the director David Swift says, in effect, that animation can't reproduce the eye contact—the sense that the actors are in one another's presence and responding to one another—that gives live action much of its vitality. I don't think that's true of good character animation in general, but in Polar Express, certainly, the failure to establish eye contact is a continuing liability, and a particularly heavy one near the end of the film, where the three principal child characters look half-finished.

As the animator Ward Jenkins has persuasively demonstrated at his Web site, Polar Express' "valley" is narrow enough that it could have been bridged easily, mainly by tinkering with the eyes—that is, by stepping back from mo-cap just long enough to introduce a little good character animation.It's a pity that Zemeckis and Hanks did not make use of the cure so close at hand.

What makes it easy to forgive such shortcomings is that The Polar Express is so intensely, persuasively dreamlike, much more so even than so dreamlike a film as The Triplets of Belleville. Chris Van Allsburg's slender picture book is dreamlike, too, but his dream is a Christmas reverie in which a young boy rides a mysterious train to the North Pole and meets Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. The computer-generated characters and backgrounds in the Zemeckis-Hanks version of Polar Express successfully reproduce the haunting appearance, at once dark and glowing, of Van Allsburg's paintings. In greatly expanding the story, though, the film transforms it into a dream far more mysterious and disturbing than the book's—a dream in which it seems natural that every character should resemble someone from the "uncanny valley."

That dreamlike quality asserts itself from the beginning of the film. No reservations about mo-cap can apply to a train, and the Polar Express itself is emphatically real on a dream's terms (it pulls up beside the boy's house on a residential street with no tracks). The atmosphere of dream really takes hold, though, when the conductor takes a girl who has lost her ticket—a terrible thing to do in this dream world—onto the snow-whipped roof of the train. (Does it seem strange that he would do that? In real life it would, of course, but not in this dream.) The boy finds the ticket, follows the conductor and the girl, and mistakes the hobo's fire for the conductor's lantern—or are they the same? Or does one become the other? Dreams hold no reliable answers to such questions.

The hobo himself is no conventional Christmas figure, however readily he might fit into one of Dickens's spooky Christmas stories. Neither are the train's engineer and fireman, both of them bizarre eccentrics. There is, especially, nothing that suggests Christmas in the boy's distress, his constantly thwarted struggle to do a small, odd thing that seems terribly important, his achingly slow progress through heavy snow on the train's roof under the threat of destruction if he cannot get off before the train reaches a tunnel. This is the stuff of dreams—or nightmares—that we have all experienced.

I've read many complaints about Zemeckis's elaborations on Van Allsburg's story. The suggestion usually is that the anxious moments on the way to the North Pole—involving the lost ticket, a roller-coaster ride up and down steep hills, and cracking ice on a frozen lake that almost swallows the train—are mere Hollywood padding in a story that would otherwise be over in minutes. But I don't see in those episodes any DreamWorks-style pandering to the audience. Zemeckis doesn't work his thrills too hard—the roller-coaster ride and the danger on the ice each last just long enough to underline the peril in the trip. Taking the Polar Express to see Santa Claus is, it turns out, no joy ride.

Christmas itself has begun to seem much less cozy than usual by the time the train reaches the North Pole. Santa's city at the Pole is a somber collection of silent red-brick factories. Those factories are not oppressive—they're so neat and tidy that they suggest miniature buildings assembled by children from toy bricks, rather than grimy workplaces in the Rust Belt—but there's nothing cheerful about them either. Magic is lacking at this North Pole, with its elves who talk like cynical Jewish New Yorkers and its scraps of popular Christmas songs that sound as if they're coming from tinny loudspeakers in some down-at-heel shopping mall.

I detect no hostility to Christmas in the film, but only recognition of just how strange our extended and elaborate celebration of Christmas is. After all, the Christian religion is, in dramatic terms, a comedy in which an unimaginable catastrophe gives way to the supremely happy ending; Christmas, the birthday of the comedy's protagonist, is only a necessary condition for the real story. The Polar Express' Santa Claus is in effect a vision of a Redeemer tailored to our Christmas, that odd religious holiday we have simultaneously inflated and diminished. This Santa is not a cuddly, jolly old elf, but an imposing, white-bearded Christ who has somehow eluded the cross and grown old. There is no Golgotha in his future, but no empty tomb, either. Just lots of presents.

I'm not suggesting that Zemeckis and Hanks and their colleagues intended that their audiences detect such religious implications in their story. I'm sure that, like most good filmmakers, and like good storytellers of all kinds, they added to their story what felt right, without bothering much with what it means. But their instincts were almost always correct.

That is true in small matters as well as large. When the elves begin celebrating to rock music just after Santa has ascended in a sleigh laden with a huge bag of toys, I flinched for a moment, fearing a tacky DreamWorks-style party like the one that ends Shrek 2. But as with the thrills on the way to the North Pole, Zemeckis knows exactly when to quit. We see just enough of the elves' celebration to make it seem perfectly natural: they're letting themselves go after knocking themselves out to meet that immutable annual deadline.

What really distinguishes The Polar Express, though, is not such good judgment, but a generosity of spirit that is all too rare in the movies. That generosity manifests itself most powerfully in the animation—not of the characters, but of their surroundings. I've never seen a CG-animated film in which the "virtual camera" moves so freely and joyously. Money helps in such matters, of course; The Polar Express cost a reported $165 million, and I suspect the actual cost was much higher. But sums as large, or larger, have been spent on animating one bloody battle after another in much worse films. Instead of splitting the skulls of thousands of orcs, Zemeckis has chosen to spend Warner Bros.' millions on transforming those of us viewing his film into the equivalents of swift-moving birds with incredibly sharp eyesight.

There is throughout The Polar Express the sense that Zemeckis can, and will, show us everything, that he will hold nothing back; and he doesn't. When his "camera" follows the lost ticket as it swoops and whirls across a wintry landscape in an amazing virtuoso display, he's not showing off, he's sharing with us his breathtaking new resources. Watching The Polar Express is like having the filmmaker at your elbow, whispering in delight, "Isn't this amazing? Isn't this wonderful?"

To which the only reasonable reply is, yes—yes, it is, very wonderful indeed.

Bi-Polar: The Polar Express in 3-D

I was not able to see the Imax 3-D version of The Polar Express when it was first released—I finally saw it in December 2005—but John Benson saw it, and his comments follow:

The Polar Express is a very different film in 3-D. Whether it's better or worse could be debated, but I occasionally peeked at it in 2-D (using one eye) and the effect was startlingly different. The 3-D is precisely like a live-action 3-D film. Everything, everything is in full, "natural" 3-D. Those shots zooming under the train—every rivet, every part of the undercarriage is totally, naturally in 3-D. Even action and images as complex as the dwarfs hitching the reindeer to the sleigh have totally natural depth in every respect. The modulation isn't as though an illustrator or sculptor had modeled them, like something in clay; every detail is naturally, unobtrusively "real." It's remarkably similar to seeing a good live-action 3-D movie in 3-D (Miss Sadie Thompson comes to mind). Everything is spatial. And, critically, you judge the images spatially. In a flat film you judge the images on a flat plane, essentially using the same critical tools you apply to a painting. The 3-D is so different that any review that doesn't indicate which version the reviewer saw is really of limited value.

One can talk, in addition to that global difference, about the particular effect created by depth in particular scenes. For example, the scene where the boy returns home, entering the darkened living room, with the train outside the front window. Dark yet familiar, dull yet homey; he's back home. The effect is so much stronger in 3-D. The "room-ness" of the room is emphasized by its depth. We know that he's experiencing the same feeling of "room" that we are, even though he's seeing it from the opposite direction, because we see him from across the room. Also, in a 2-D dark room things have a tendency to fade into the darkness, as you know if you've taken a photo of something that looked great in dim light and found that the impression depended on the perception of depth. Here, the room can be quite dark, yet without straining our eyes we can see the sofa, the chair, the familiar details. And, of course, the train is now in depth beyond, outside the window. (The importance of the depth of "room" in 3-D is what makes Hitchcock's filmed stage-play Dial M for Murder quite a different experience in 3-D.)

My guess is that Zemeckis saw and was influenced by a grab-bag Imax film called Encounter with the Third Dimension (1998), which not only included a roller-coaster ride through the center of the earth but also demonstrated effectively that a huge locale in Imax 3-D has a really uncanny effect of hugeness. Zemeckis obviously was aware of this when created those interior scenes of giant factory rooms. The same is true of the high long shots of the town square. There it is, it's real, those thousands of dwarfs each real, each with the slightest difference of depth that they'd have from that distance. It's demonstrably huge, and far, far away below you. Your two eyes tell you so. It seems real, but it isn't, of course—a very dream-like effect.

There's one particularly creative use of 3-D, or rather the lack of 3-D. When the boy watches his little sister being put to bed by their parents through the keyhole, the scene is flat. At first I thought this was an error, but, later, when I was trying to figure out why that shot had such a strong feeling of looking through a keyhole, I realized that it wasn't only the framing of the shot, it was because it was flat. Of course: you look through a keyhole with only one eye, so you don't see depth. There was another short flat sequence in the film; I can't remember what it was, but I doubt it was intentional.

My complaints about the film are mostly related to the period when it was made. There's the necessity for a thrill-a-minute, of course, though it could be argued that that's not unique to today's films. But computer and other technical advances have unleashed camera movement to the point that any live-action "action" film is filled with swift, swooping camera movements, speeding along after running figures, darting through their legs, whisking from long shots to close-ups, etc. And the necessity for constant change is now not limited to sequences (which must be only a few minutes long before there's a change of scene), but to shots themselves. Each shot is held just long enough to grasp the content, and barely that. It's hard to blame Zemeckis for living in his own time, but if this film could have been made thirty years ago, I would have liked it much more.

The fact is that the artistry (if that's the right word, and it may be) of the lost-ticket sequence is strong enough that there's no need to hurry through. Let us see that great forest, let us see the wolves playing in the snow for a longer stationary shot before following them in the chase, let's have a good long look at that incredible valley that the eagle soars over. Let's move the camera less, and slower. I looked at those visuals closely; one could only be more impressed if one had a bit more chance to digest and enjoy them.

The film also seems to me to go seriously wrong in the sequence before the children meet Santa, from the point their car is released from the train until they're back in the square. I particularly disliked the whole sequence of moving the bag of gifts from the factory to the sleigh; all the gimmicks, the rockets, the bungee-jumping elves and so on. But when the children get back to the square, the film gets back on track with the simplicity of the gift bell and the relatively swift conclusion.

I noticed, incidentally, that there's an uncharacteristically abrupt cut in this sequence. When the children are tightrope-walking on the tracks across the chasm (which is rather horrifying in 3-D, especially if you have a touch of acrophobia) they get halfway across and then suddenly they're running on solid ground. I wouldn't be surprised if something had been cut here due to preview reaction.

(One thing I found odd—and it's even odder that no one seems to have mentioned it in
print—is that all the thousands of elves are male, until they begin partying. Then suddenly, from nowhere, they have female partners to dance with.)

The development of the characters has some subtlety uncommon for such a film, live action or otherwise. The conductor's character is not one-dimensional (if I can use the term). Gruff but kindly, in charge but humble—these conflicting characteristics don't necessarily indicate subtlety and can be as telegraphed or clichéd as any single characteristic. But I didn't feel that was the case here. The conductor seemed like a real person of some complexity. He also had that attitude—not at all cruel, but brisk and a little impatient—that people who are used to dealing with children can develop.

I liked the know-it-all kid, too, especially at the moment when Santa gives him a little rebuke. He instantly realizes that he's gone too far. Without any humility or contrition, he steps back and shows respect for Santa in a manly way. The way the sad boy hung on to his present seemed to me to be handled with subtlety, not as an acquisitive action but as an emotional one. In so many children's films, the dialogue is cutesy and tin-ear, and I didn't have that feeling here.

And I liked the Santa. He seemed adult, serious, and distant even as he was kindly, in the precise way of some real adults with great reputations for kindness and character that I knew as a child.

It's interesting how the perception of a film is colored by the times in which it is seen. The Polar Express is about a boy who comes to "believe" in Santa, "contrary to what his eyes have shown him in real life and what his growing analytical mind has determined" (as one critic noted). We are living in a world where powerful forces are basing their actions on ideology—unproven belief. Rational deduction based on observation and the empirical scientific process itself are under attack. Fundamentalism, which is belief in opposition to evidence in its rawest form, has been let loose in the world—in this country, in Islam, and doubtless elsewhere. In today's intellectual and emotional climate, the film's message—that you must "believe"—which would have seemed so benign in my fifties childhood, has a somewhat sinister cast.

Polar Express and Imax 3-D: 3-D That Works!

Kim Weston contributed these thoughts on Polar Express' 3-D incarnation in December 2005:

I loved the book when I first bought it for and read it to my very young daughter (now 20) on the recommendation of a friend and book dealer, Jim Lawson. And every time since. Partly for its capturing of a child's perspective.

On the way home to Baltimore from visiting relatives in New Jersey after Christmas 2004, my family made a special detour to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, to see The Polar Express in Imax 3-D, the only way I've seen it. I don't recall all my impressions of almost a year ago, but I do recall that the human "animation" was very impressive but not quite good enough, but that the other animation didn't have that "not quite human flaw," since of course it wasn't of humans. And the 3-D was wonderful and brought back memories of the first time I saw an Imax 3-D movie. I thought that too much was added to the book but still enjoyed it greatly and it caused me to wonder where Imax 3-D animation might go in the future. It seems to me that given the way the the Pixar and similar movies are made, it should be relatively easy and relatively inexpensive (compared to the price of doing the movie from scratch) to go back to the computer and rotate each frame of 3-D animation by the apparent angle of the interocular distance and come up with true Imax 3-D versions of all those movies. I've read somewhere that George Lucas wants to make Imax 3-D versions of the six Star Wars movies. With the extensive digital effects in Episodes I-III, that shouldn't be that difficult, although live-action characters would require some digital modeling to avoid looking flat against 3-D backgrounds. Episodes IV-VI would need a lot more work, and we might end up with modeled live characters playing against all new digital scenery.

My overall impression of Polar Express in Imax 3-D (and of other Imax 3-D movies I've seen) is that this is the first time I have seen 3-D really work well. And the reason is that the Imax film effectively fills your full field of view. Things that come up in your face really seem to come up in your face. Now, you would think that a movie screen 80 feet tall and maybe 110 feet wide would lend itself well to spectacle and big chunks of scenery. And it does, something obvious in every Imax movie I've ever seen, and I'm sure many readers here have observed the same thing. However, when the Imax camera focuses on the trees, instead of the forest, the effect can be a little bit grotesque, giving you a bunny rabbit 60 feet tall and 100 feet wide, as it were.

The Imax 3-D experience, in contrast, is capable of surprising intimacy. That 60-foot tall, 100- foot wide bunny up on the screen seems life size and close enough to touch. A year later, I don't specifically remember that this type of shot was used in Polar Express, but it has been in some Imax 3-D movies I've seen. As a matter of fact, there have been several times when I have reached out involuntarily to check the apparent location of the image when it was seemed to be less than an arm's length away. More often than not, the effect wasn't of big images up on a big screen, over there, but smaller images much closer. In a number of instances, the apparent field of view—the focus of my attention—was an area less than three feet wide only a couple feet away. Now, I could still see other things in the background, but it was very much like being there. I could also argue that Imax 3-D is also the first time in movies that a close-up really was a close-up. In a regular movie, a close-up is a shot taken (usually) close to the subject of the picture, so that it fills much or all of the screen. But it is still a big picture far away on the screen. In Imax 3-D a close-up really can be close enough to touch, and it may well be natural size. Even though there is a big picture up there on the screen, that doesn't have to be the way you perceive it.

And Imax 3-D was also excellent for showing the forest, the big picture, too. I usually like to sit in about the middle of the theatre for Imax movies (as well as regular movies) but even in the back row, it still works really well. The image almost completely filled my glasses from top to bottom rim and side to side, and that is where most of the important visual information comes from. Closer to the center of the theatre, and especially down front, even more of the field of view and some of the periphery is filled.

I can see how this process could be used very effectively for putting you into the scene of a drama in a way that the old 3-D movies never did and never could. 3-D is a natural extension of Imax and I think, the only place it can work well. Unfortunately, it is a very expensive process, with large-gauge film and special movie theatres with huge screens and a relatively small numbers of seats. So it is expensive to produce and expensive to exhibit and there are very few places to show it.

I saw Chicken Little in 3-D a few nights ago, not in Imax, mainly because I was curious about "Disney Digital 3-D"—it wasn't made in 3-D like Polar Express, but the 3-D effects were added after the fact by, according to the film credits, Industrial Light and Magic—LucasFilm. It certainly adds credence to reports that George Lucas wants to make Imax 3-D versions of the Star Wars movies. Chicken Little was mediocre and the 3-D wasn't as good as Polar Express, but it was basically good enough 3-D. It looked about as good as movies actually filmed in 3-D, but in no way is the experience comparable to an Imax 3-D film, even though I sat much closer to the screen than I normally would so as to maximize the portion of my field of view filled by the screen. I would think that with this type of "3-D" animation, it would be easier and cheaper and more lifelike 3-D to do the 3-D by rotating each frame slightly and recording both images directly in the computer than to do what was apparently done here, three-dimensionalize it later from the finished flat film, but this film certainly proves to me that it can be done. The technology isn't all the way there yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if, in a couple years, it will have advanced to the state where you can take any old flat film (2-D) and three-dimensionalize it convincingly. Again, I mentioned above that assuming digital backgrounds are easy to make into real 3-D, live-action characters would require some digital modeling to avoid looking flat against 3-D backgrounds. Well, they already effectively did that digital modeling in Chicken Little. It isn't perfect and my somewhat critical eye could see the difference fairly easily, but it was easy enough to ignore the imperfections most of the time, given that many other effects were totally convincing. And, again, it's only going to get better.

[Posted January 9, 2005; Benson comments added February 27, 2005; Weston comments added December 19, 2005.]