Friday, May 6, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part XIV: Snowpiercer


Zemeckis' first mo-cap cartoon is blessed with not just a great deal of appealingly colorful design, but a whole new second volume in Tom Hanks' Encylcopedia of Amusingly Stupid Voices, too.  But reach beyond these attractive (albeit sometimes clunkily-animated) surfaces, and all you have left is the hollowness that lay at the heart of The Polar Express, a genial-as-shit nothing of a movie that I can't quite bring myself to even really dislike, yet shall never, ever truly enjoy.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by William Broyles, Jr. and Robert Zemeckis (based on the book by Chris Van Allsberg)
With Daryl Sabara/Josh Hutcherson/Tom Hanks (The Boy), Nona Gaye/Chantel Valdivieso/Meagan Moore/Tinashe Kachingwe (The Girl), Eddie Deezen/Jimmy Pinchak (Know-It-All), Jimmy Bennett/Peter Scolari/Hayden McFarland (Billy), and Tom Hanks (The Father, The Conductor, The Hobo, The Puppet Scrooge, Santa Claus, and The Narrator, the Boy as a Man)

Spoiler alert: insofar as this movie has a plot in the first place, moderate

Robert Zemeckis is not universally loved, you know.  Every now and again, you'll run headfirst into a direly negative opinion of the director, typically based on extraordinarily facile readings of his films, and often concerning his adoration for technology and his adherence to a decisively commercial brand of cinema.  Sometimes all pretense of civility will be stripped away, and the author will just outright state, "Robert Zemeckis?  He's a fucking hack."

These sentiments, although limited to a grumpy few back in the 20th century, outright exploded in the 21st.  And if you're looking for Year Zero of the Era of Zemeckis the Disfavored Filmmaker, you'll find that in 2004, when Zemeckis released his first full-bore animated feature, The Polar Express.  Serving as the debut for the revolutionary motion capture that Zemeckis and his ImageMovers production company had been developing for years, it's now such a ubiquitous and mundane technique that I don't think there's any profit in me actually describing it to you, especially given that you've probably seen a movie using some variation on it within the past damned week.  So suffice it to say that in the early Aughts, two men were doing their level best to push cinema into a limitless digital universe—and three, if you count James Cameron, whose efforts wouldn't pan out until the last half of the decade—but the two I'm referring to are Zemeckis and Peter Jackson.

Jackson possessed the more measured aspirations, and while ultimately he too would help produce his own full-on mo-cap cartoon—a film we'll be getting to shortly in our other ongoing retrospective—Jackson was more interested in the prospect of putting creatures that no actor could plausibly portray within otherwise live-action movies.  And thus did we have Gollum and King Kong—and all their many computer-generated children—and thus did we also have the career of the mo-cap master, Andy Serkis.

Zemeckis, meanwhile, prefigured Cameron in his ambitions, even if he never quite achieved what Cameron did when the latter director finally rolled out his blockbusting superhit, Avatar.  Like Cameron, Zemeckis had set out to create machinery that would allow him to bend his movies completely to his own will.  (In a way, it's like auteur theory made into a concrete reality through advanced technology.)  Of course, at this point, you have to ask why he didn't just make 3D-animated cartoons without dicking around with men and women covered in ping-pong balls.  Indeed, we'll probably ask that question over and over again as we diligently plumb the depths of Zemeckis' next three features.  But the answer is that he wanted to keep the humanity in his films.  And thus he fitted his actors within CGI skins, and slotted their performances into CGI worlds which, in all other respects, he could command without any limitation at all.  On paper, anyway, it sounds exciting.

And so my point, if I have one, is this: hacks don't go on the journey Zemeckis did when he decided that mo-cap was going to be The Glorious Future of Filmmaking.  And hacks certainly don't keep making the mo-cap animated features that Zemeckis did, not when it became very clear that almost nobody actually seemed to like them.  So give him at least that much credit.  Zemeckis had a vision, whether that vision pleased you or not.  Indeed, Zemeckis' Motion Capture Trilogy was essentially the culmination of all his previous efforts to destroy the walls between fantasy and reality.  That had been the passion that had driven, to one extent or another, Back to the Future Part II, Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, and Contact—which also sounds suspiciously similar to a list of his very best films.

So, if you ask me, that passion is absolutely admirable.  And I'm even glad that Zemeckis got his chance to push his obsession all the way to its logical conclusion...

...But, then, if you asked me about The Polar Express, Beowulf, or A Christmas Carol, individually, as films?  Well, in that case, you might find me showing a whole lot less enthusiasm about any high-minded notions of unfettered artistic freedom.  For now, though, let's attend solely to Express itself—Zemeckis' adaptation of the very, very short children's book by Chris Van Allsberg, which I have to imagine is significantly less baffling when it comes in the form of thirty or so full-page pictures, paired with roughly the same number of actual words.

It is the tale of a boy (the "Hero Boy," going by the credits, which indicates that whoever wrote the credits, presumably Zemeckis, does not know what the word "hero" means).  This lad, around the age of eight or nine, has lately come to question the lies he's been told about the existence of Santa Claus.  But on Christmas Eve, a phantom train appears outside his window.  The fact that he does not actually live next to any railroad tracks is his first clue that something magical is going on, and, indeed, this is the Polar Express, a locomotive dedicated to conveying young men and women at the cusp of disbelief in Santa to the North Pole, where their faith might be restored.  "Seeing is believing," they say.  At first hesitant, the hectoring old Conductor beckons him, and he jumps aboard.

On the Polar Express he meets, in order: a girl, who oddly (and in contravention of the premise) doesn't seem especially dubious about this magical endeavor; a know-it-all whose voice is going to be awfully familiar to anyone who's seen I Wanna Hold Your Hand or 1941 (although I am confident in calling it the best use of Eddie Deezen ever); and, finally, a kid from the other side of the tracks, for whom "Christmas doesn't work out," which might be because his parents are fucking poor, and Santa isn't fucking real.

...I'm getting ahead of myself, I suppose, but the four have adventures aboard the Polar Express, and at those adventures' conclusion they arrive at the North Pole, where they make the acquaintance of unaccountably Yiddish elves, get lost in Santa's industrial operation, and finally meet the Big Man himself.

First, I want to emphasize that Express does alright for itself in terms of spectacle.  The train, blessed with CGI mist and snowstorms to travel through, is a work of art, and it's a lot of fun to watch it do impossible things.  The sense of mystery it initially exudes is real and very clearly the film's greatest strength, represented most forcefully by the three roles Tom Hanks plays as various denizens of the Express—most importantly the Conductor, but also, and quite charmingly (indeed, even somewhat spookily), a spectral hobo.  And, of course, there's the mo-cap animation itself, which has been met with terrified repulsion, ever since the film came out more than eleven years ago.

Not without any cause.

The commonest objections revolve around the characters' eyes—and, maybe I'm just literally autistic, but I don't really mind it.  If anything, the eyes are the single best thing about the protagonist's design, at least—a little bigger than real life and rather expressive, they're a fine set of eyes through which to see the weird vistas Zemeckis has laid out before us.  Hanks' characters and the girl aren't made of quite the same stuff; but they're perfectly serviceable.  I think the complaints must be centered around the poor kid, who is indeed slightly horrid—he's sort of a homunculus—but we don't spend so much time with him that it really matters.  Meanwhile, despite the fact that Express was made with real faces, you'll perhaps notice the moments where the characters still somehow manage to go off-model.  All in all, though, as far as the faces specifically go, it's not too bad for the first film of its kind.

If things ever go seriously awry, it's where the mo-cap presumably ought to have helped the most: in Express, every character moves as stiffly as a marionette that's been soaking in water all night—that is, except when Zemeckis needs to have an action scene, where mo-cap is wholly abandoned, and the characters move as quickly and fluidly as the full-CGI creations they are.  (Incidentally, take a look at the sprawling cast list I assembled up top, and consider this: when you have one character being played by four individual human beings, wouldn't you agree that the point of having mo-cap in the first place winds up at least a little bit lost?)

But there's nothing in its visuals worth hating the thing for.  To the extent that The Polar Express is a Christmas ornament that you put on your TV instead of your tree, it's a lovely ornament indeed.

No, the problems only become seriously apparently when you focus on it, like it was an actual movie, rather than just some gaudy moving painting.  I did focus on it, much to my chagrin, and thus I am at a loss to name a single film that's emptier.  It's so thematically barren and narratively pointless that watching it is honestly kind of aggravating; it thus winds up failing on the very level it sets out to conquer, that of easy-going entertainment.  It's not a hard sit, to be sure—it's quick and visually interesting—but the moment that the kids arrive at the North Pole, the meaninglessness of it all becomes, irrevocably, the anchor that drags it beneath the ice and drowns it.

Express is about the importance of a child's belief in Santa—full stop.  It has no other purpose at all beyond serving as a devotional aid for a demigod that, importantly, nobody over the age of ten actually worships—not least because the sole reason Santa exists, and the sole reason anyone actually loves him, is because if you were good (and if your parents have money) he brings you shit on Christmas morning.  (This is why it's flabbergasting to include the disadvantaged boy, whose lousy Christmasses stem directly from the fact that Santa is a myth—but when Express dispenses more-or-less entirely with everything else that movies usually say that Christmas is really about, then presents are all you have left.)

So, the good news is that Santa's real!  The bad news is that he still won't be visiting anyone below the poverty line on anything like a regular basis.

And thus I can't fathom at all what other purpose the film might serve, other than to try to remind people that once upon a time, they too were children who believed in the dumbest fucking things because they were materialistic little assholes.  It doesn't tell you to love your family.  It only barely manages to find a spare line of dialogue to enjoin you to love your friends.  It doesn't bother insisting upon a Christmaslike spirit.  It doesn't even ask any moral questions about being naughty or nice.  It gets around to the notion of Santa as a proxy for parental love only incidentally, and then only by casting everyone's dad, Tom Hanks, in the roles of both father and Santa.  And, obviously, it can't be the most interesting thing it could have been, which was an examination of that bitter moment when you realize your parents are liars, but they were only lying to you because they thought your innocence depended upon it.  So, bereft of the slightest justification for its existence, The Polar Express simply asserts that magic is real, and Santa is real, and this is important... um, well, because.

And hence all we have is just another vaguely Wonkaesque adventure, with no real Wonka and only half an adventure—and where, thanks to its status as a cartoon, up to 20% of the film's runtime turns out to be spent on trying to catch objects as they implausibly careen through the air.  Oh, yes, it's easy to watch—but why would you bother, when there are so many other movies, including other Christmas movies, that are just as easy, and manage to have some meat on their bones, too?

Score: 5.01/10

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