Windows on the Will

The Polar Express

a film directed by Robert Zemeckis


a film directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Michael and Lisa, voiced by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh, in the stop-motion animated film Anomalisa
Paramount Pictures
Michael and Lisa, voiced by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh, in the stop-motion animated film Anomalisa

On a wintry afternoon, alone with the kids, I visited the Central Park Zoo. It’s not a very big place, just zoo-sized, and after seeing the animals, we found ourselves lining up to enter the little movie theater to watch something called The Polar Express 4-D Experience. A Christmas-themed spin-off from the 2004 movie, it employs the same “performance capture” animation technique, familiar from video games, in which an actor’s movements are turned into computer-generated images. “Hero Boy”—the original protagonist—is still only about ten years old. We find him in his room, enduring his own voice-over, as spoken by his avuncular adult self, Tom Hanks:

On Christmas Eve, many years ago, I lay quietly in my bed. I did not rustle the sheets, I breathed slowly and silently. I was listening for a sound I was afraid I’d never hear: the ringing bells of Santa’s sleigh.

Hero Boy looks like a human, his flesh is fleshy, his yellow pajamas flap and wrinkle, and his hair has the hair-like quality of hair. But those eyes! They belong to a puppet, a waxwork, an automaton. Realistic eyes prove a step too far for 3-D imaging. The effect—as many noted the first time around—is creepy. Uncanny valley. But kids don’t care. My children loved Hero Boy and his dead zombie eyes, and the snow that fell on their heads from the ceiling of the theater and the breeze blowing out of their seats onto the backs of their tiny necks. And because I was alone with them I had nobody to talk with about my own 4-D experience, no one with whom to express that vague dread adults tend to feel in the face of an attempt at absolute verisimilitude. I had no one to bore with a Schopenhauer reference:

The true work of art leads us from that which exists only once and never again, i.e. the individual, to that which exists perpetually and time and time again in innumerable manifestations, the pure form or Idea; but the waxwork figure appears to present the individual itself, that is to say that which exists only once and never again, but without that which lends value to such a fleeting existence, without life. That is why the waxwork evokes a feeling of horror: it produces the effect of a rigid corpse.

For the children the great interest of the movie—aside from its reality effect—was the manner in which it probed the ontological status of Santa. Is Santa real? For Hero Boy is having a crisis of faith and, sneaking from bed, pulls out a volume of encyclopedia and looks up the entry on the North Pole. “Stark and barren,”…

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