It never bodes well for a film when its publicity schemes are analogous to the film itself. Just to paint a picture (and to allow others to experience my discomfort and embarrassment vicariously), at the pre-screening of “The Polar Express,” an adaptation of the timeless Christmas book by Chris Van Allsburg, Warner Brothers had its publicity people dressed up in pajamas with slippers and digital cameras in their hands taking ticket stubs, while smiling, cheerful employees handed out hot chocolate and doughnuts. Normally I would never spend time considering such things in a film review. However, I feel obligated to make an exception in this case because the marketing for the film was so indicative of many of its cinematic failures.
What made Van Allsburg’s original story so “magical” was its subtlety and grace in avoiding many common pitfalls into which most Christmas stories seem to inevitably fall. With its film noir sensibilities, the illustrations contained many elements that could have been translated into a beautiful and authentic Christmas movie, maybe even harkening back to days of the old, when action was not a prerequisite for entertainment and children were engrossed by the magic of the narrative itself. Unfortunately, director Robert Zemeckis decided to forgo this option, instead opting for an action-packed, visually stunning (and at times overdone) Christmas extravaganza.
While this must be entertaining for a young audience that expects nothing less from a movie than intense action sequences, it leaves adult viewers with a story hollowed out by disingenuous “warmth” and a sense that the original book has been far too diluted to convey its original message. Of course, this seemingly embittered response could be a general reaction to the state of the monolithic marketing machine that we have come to accept as Christmas. However, even if this is the true state of things and “The Polar Express” is simply a function of this changing ideology, it does not mean that we should allow it to happen. When multiple scenes in a movie intended to express the true spirit of Christmas look as though they would make a really cool rollercoaster ride or videogame, then that movie accepts that the very principles its espouses are really empty and lost in today’s culture. In short, if a movie such as “The Polar Express” must “flex its technological muscle” in order to convey principles which run in direct opposition to said “flexing,” then the movie is missing the “spirit” it claims to advocate.
“The Polar Express” opens in Washington, D.C. Friday, Nov. 12.