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Polarised by The Express (or rather two of them)
A film review of the 3D IMAX version of THE POLAR EXPRESS by Richard Franklin
The following review was written in response to Camus's original review of The Polar Express (which you can read here), submitted by acclaimed feature director Richard Franklin, who is, I should note, good friends with our humble reviewer. Our view of the film in its regular cinema incarnation has not altered, but we feel it is only fair to present the opposing view, even if it does get a little personal in places.
It is important to note that Richard's review is of the 3D Imax version of the film. For those with no experience of the process (probably the majority of readers in the UK), see my discussion on it and some of the films made for it here.
Slarek - Site Editor


The Polar Express is an important cinematic landmark; one of the biggest movies of all time, if seen as its film makers intended in 3D IMAX. It should not have been released in normal theatres and it was depressing to be present on opening day at a mulitplex in Los Angeles and see families lining up to see the ordinary version in an ordinary cinema, when if they had climbed an extra flight of stairs they could have experienced something as extraordinary to this viewer as his first experience of Cinerama (the first wide screen process of the nineteen fifties). Camus' review of the ordinary version, also depresses me.

Imagine even RE-releasing This is Cinerama in a scaled down version in ordinary theatres. Or even sillier, allowing critics to review it this way on its first run. No one would have been so stupid back in the days of Cinerama, but nowadays Hollywood is in the hands of number crunchers with law degrees. A seasonal movie which cost a lot needed to make a quick killing and I suspect in their rampant greed, they have killed the whole process, aided and abetted by critics like Camus.

The fact this is/was the first ever animated feature film in this astonishing process was (deliberately I believe) not publicised, rating little more than a footnote (like Camus') in most reviews. Critics seem to be polarised between those who took the trouble to experience the film on the BIG screen and those (like Camus) who did not. The former group (like myself) were overwhelmed. The others, not surprisingly were not. But "bored"!?! Camus may be a dab hand at puns and witty put downs, but the title of his review is just plain irresponsible. No one with whom I've sat through the experience in 3D IMAX was anything other than transported. And as for something designed for our children at Christmas time - spare us "murdering, robotic Santas" - Camus is a father - shame on him!

For many years, screen size was one of the ways cinema was differentiated from the small screen. In the days of franchising dilettantes and amateurs to become film makers via digital cameras and home computer technology, The Polar Express may be the last gasp of the big screen. It is still argued by cinema purists (of which I thought Camus was one) that inspite of advances in home theatre, a film should be seen in a cinema. Logically therefore a BIG film should be seen in a BIG cinema, a 3D film in a 3D cinema etc.

More important though than the size of the IMAX screen (and it is letterboxed here to a sensible 2:1) is its use of 3D. It is quite simply the best use of the process I have ever seen (and I've seen Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder in 3D). As a fellow director, I was so astonished by the use of deep focus and foreground framing, I wrote to Robert Zemeckis and complimented him on coming up with the most revolutionary framings since Citizen Kane. To my amazement however, when I watched a portion of the film in its ordinary/ flat version, none of these framings was apparent - they require 3D!

There was a time when ordinary cinemas contained two projectors and could run 3D, but now with automated projection, most cinemas, especially in multiplexes, have only one projector (number crunchers again). No-one has yet come up with a way to successfully transfer 3D to DVD, so the only way to see The Polar Express in 3D, is in an IMAX theatre.

Making a feature film from a 29 page book (mostly pictures) was a tough brief. The film makers chose to turn the journey to the North Pole into a roller coaster ride. In 3D IMAX one experiences the ride, but in the version Camus chose to see, one does NOT experience, but sees only a movie facsimile of that ride.

In spite of his comments, please take the time to take the trip to your closest IMAX venue to experience an important cinematic landmark.

To conclude, let me have a go at answering a couple of Camus' rhetorical questions, which he fires off as if his adult wit and wordplay overcome his mean spritedness when it comes to this ground breaking piece of family entertainment -

"What camera?"

This is part of the fascination of this new form of cinema - gravity does not enter the film maker's world and however fond Camus may be of John Lassiter/ Brad Bird's hyper energetic The Incredibles it contains no camera-less shot as clever as the track through a keyhole, no single shot as sustained and visually exciting as the floating ticket sequence, no idea as audacious as the runaway train on the frozen lake and nothing as cinematically ground breaking as the floating writing when the child looks up the North Pole in his encylopaedia (which in 3D is like a curtain in the middle of the theatre).

Why CG the principals?

I'd guess it related to the visual style of the book on which it is based (and animation after all is based on the illustration in children's books). I also felt there were a few Tom Hanks too many, but can assure Camus that viewing the first feature film in a new medium, the larger than life, BIG screen experience makes up for the defiance of physics (since you can walk through a moving train, I assume you can also walk along its roof). And for what he calls "creepiness" - due almost entirely to the artificiality of the eyes (the only part of the anatomy which cannot be "motion captured"). If critics had been as uncharitable about the artificiality of the humans in the original Toy Story (the first computer animated feature), Lassiter et al would never have got to make The Incredibles. Indeed if they'd been as savage about Disney's early attempts at humans (eg the Silly Symphony Goddess of Spring) we would never have had Snow White.

The Polar Express

USA 20045
99 mins
Robert Zemeckis
Gary Goetzman
Steve Starkey
William Teitler
Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis
William Broyles Jr.
from the book by
Chris Van Allsburg
R. Orlando Duenas
Jeremiah O'Driscoll
Glen Ballard
Alan Silvestri
production design
Rick Carter
Tom Hanks
Leslie Harter Zemeckis
Eddie Deezen
Nona M. Gaye
Peter Scolari
review posted
17 December 2004