In Shakespeare's fantasy A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom the Weaver enjoys acting so much that he volunteers to play all the parts in the play. Now, we have the technology to make that possible. To make The Polar Express (rated G), Tom Hanks hooked himself up to sensors that programmed his movements into a computer, which then translated them into 3-D animated figures. To these he added his voice-overs, allowing him to play six different roles (the boy, his father, the conductor, Santa Claus, the hobo, the Scrooge).
The technology is impressive. The visual impact of the film, with its dizzying chasms and vast arctic landscapes, is spectacular. The hyper-realistic animated figures, with every gesture true-to-life, are uncanny. But they are also creepy. The figures are lifelike, while clearly being not alive. They render the externals of the human form accurately enough-like a highly realistic puppet, mannequin, or robot-but there is no inner life to shine through. To hear so much human sentiment coming from behind lifeless eyes is unsettling.
In the plot itself, a magical train on Christmas Eve picks up children who are starting to doubt the existence of Santa Claus and takes them to the North Pole. Here and en route they learn lessons about themselves and the spirit of Christmas, meeting Santa and learning to "hear the bells" if they only "believe."
The movie emphasizes the importance of "believing," while saying nothing about the content of belief. This movie presents the very act of believing as what is important, no matter what the belief is. But believing in God, believing in Santa Claus, and believing in oneself are not the same thing.
Creepier than lifeless high-tech forms that pretend to be alive is this Christmas movie that, on the surface, tries to formulate a positive message but, again, lacks inner life. Many beloved Christmas songs are on the soundtrack, but none of them so much as mentions the birth of Jesus Christ. Since Christmas is about God made flesh, a Christmas movie in which even the human beings are not made flesh can only miss the point.