Hanks for Nothing, Tom!: The Polar Express

What do you think of when you hear “Tom Hanks”? The American everyman or the Antichrist’s emissary? Affable pal or appalling performer?  Ready for coronation or ripe for condemnation? To coincide with Hanks’s latest film premiering this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writer Sam Watermeier and contributor Dave Gutierrez will offer conflicting viewpoints on the iconic (or is it irritating?) actor every week. On Tuesdays, Dave will say Hanks for Nothing, Tom! On Wednesdays, Sam will say Hanks for Everything, Tom! At month’s end, they’ll face each other in what we’re calling the Gump-Off. To paraphrase Forrest: This series is like a box of chocolates. Some of them are dosed with poison.


Indulge me, if you will, in a little thought experiment.

Imagine that you’ve opened your pop-culture news site of choice to discover that Gwyneth Paltrow has decided to make The Berenstain Bears Go to the Doctor — one of your favorite childhood books — into a movie. At first, you’re elated. Paltrow is kind of insufferable, but goodness knows the world has gone on long enough without a cinematic version of The Berenstain Bears. Then you read that not only is Paltrow producing, she’s decided to act in the movie as well. OK. Sure. No big deal, she’ll be a fine Mama Bear. But wait, she’s not just doing the voice, she’s also going to be the motion-capture model. And she’s not just doing Mama Bear. No, Paltrow has decided to do all the voices for all of the adult characters, and she’s going to do motion-capture for almost all of the other characters, too — including the kids for whom she’s not doing the voices. She’s also adding a couple new characters and scenes, and now you’re justifiably worried that a perfect 25-page picture book will become a bloated, unrecognizable two-hour slog.

Imagine further that the first test footage is out, and the animation looks like it’s already five years out of date. Now imagine the Internet’s eruption. Outrage over Paltrow’s monumental ego, lamentations about how she’s ruining everyone’s childhood, mockery over her hubris, glee over her inevitable failure. Knives would be out from the moment the first trailer dropped if someone like Paltrow had the audacity to spit on a beloved children’s classic like that.

Now, imagine that — instead of outrage and mockery — everyone instead numbly piled their kids into theaters to see such a pile of flaming garbage to the tune of a $300 million domestic gross.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Polar Express.

More than any other movie on my list, Express represents everything I dislike about Tom Hanks as a performer. The colossal ego hidden behind a carefully crafted and maintained “everyman” persona. The free pass to be taken seriously, no matter how vain and overreaching the project. The inability to do accents without sounding like a bad morning-zoo DJ’s prank calls. The utter lack of commercial accountability for making something horrible. Hell, the sheer balls to decide that the best way to portray a couple of kids onscreen is to bring in one of your old sitcom buddies — also in his late 40s — and do the motion-capture yourselves. If Val Kilmer, Joaquin Phoenix or Johnny Depp pulled this kind of stunt, we’d be laughing about it for decades. But when Hanks does it — and terribly to boot — it somehow becomes a Christmas classic. By any reasonable criticism, Express is a disaster — a vanity project so ridiculous it would have been shot down as a pitch for an Entourage episode. If it were anyone but Tom Fucking Hanks (and his ever-indulgent director, Robert Zemeckis), this film would be an absolute joke.  

The first sin this movie commits is one of the oldest: It fails to live up to the majesty of the book. Chris Van Allsburg’s original work is haunting and beautiful, one of those rare and special books for children that takes them seriously as an audience without talking over their heads. It’s a solemn reflection on the power of belief, playing with the “it was all a dream” trope but coming back all the way to a firm reinforcement that believing is its own kind of magic. The message is that it’s OK to believe in Christmas, even if your cynical friends want to make skepticism seem cool. Don’t let go just to be a part of a group; the group that still believes in the magic is having way more fun. The book is special, and it deserves a place in any home where Christmas is a thing.

The movie, alas, is not. While there was clearly some effort to evoke Van Allsburg’s unique visual aesthetic, the animators captured the literal style without any of the substance. It’s like reading a bad translation of a poem; the pieces are all there, but beauty of the rhythms and wordplay are all lost and you’re left with a wall of text. Worse still, it’s not just that the animation doesn’t live up to the illustrations in the book. It’s actively bad animation. The movie cost $185 million to make in 2004, making it the most expensive animated feature ever produced at the time. So why does it look like a bad videogame cutscene?

The characters’ movements are robotic and stilted. Textures are flat and unrealistic. Everyone has the soulless gaze of a department-store mannequin. It’s neither photorealistic nor cartoonish, just super creepy. And don’t come at me with some BS about how I can’t judge 2004 technology by 2020 standards. This film came out in the same year as The Incredibles and after the first two Toy Story movies, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. The technology was there. Pixar had been making magic with computer animation for nearly a decade. You can see the wind blow snowflakes through Sully’s fur in Monsters Inc.,but they couldn’t make the conductor’s mustache move when he speaks in Express? That’s ridiculous.

The choice to go with badly motion-captured CGI animation here really exposes Hanks’s incredible ego as well. In his infinite wisdom, Hanks did the motion-capture work for all four adult characters he plays but also the child at the story’s center (credited as “Hero Boy,” which bugs me for reasons I haven’t been able to put words to yet). The result is a dead-eyed, unnatural child who — on the rare occasion that his movements are anything like organic — has the posture and bearing of a disinterested 50-year-old man. The movie begins with the Hanksling in bed after ruining Christmas for his sister by mocking her belief in Santa. After his parents come to tuck him in, he nods off only to be awakened by the sound of a train running through his front yard. (Side note: Hanks voices the dad, even though it would’ve made far more narrative sense to let literally anyone else do that if only to separate the father character from the narrator, also Hanks.)

The cynical lad meets his second Hanks-doppelganger in the Conductor, a mustachioed weirdo with seemingly magical powers and a “quirky” fixation on his pocket watch that takes the place of any meaningful or interesting characterization. (Is this a thing for Robert Zemeckis? Does he have a undiagnosed kink for Tom Hanks and pocket watches?) The kid resists the Conductor’s offer to get on board at first because everyone knows you don’t follow weird adults onto magical trains in the middle of the night. But as the train pulls away, he succumbs to temptation and runs alongside to hop aboard. Apparently if you’re going to risk a kidnapping, you may as well also risk losing an arm trying to board a moving train car.

Aboard the train are several other creepy, dead-eyed children, all jarringly and unconvincingly voiced by adults. Terrible as the animation is here, it’s still not bad enough to distract from the absolutely horrendous voice work. I’ve seen local car-insurance commercials with better voice acting — and that includes His Eminence, Tom Hanks. Lucky for the audience, most of the kids are just badly drawn extras, so we can focus on a couple of the kids. There’s “Hero Girl,” voiced by Nona Gaye (daughter of Marvin Gaye, and also a 30-year-old adult person who sounds nothing like a child). She’s immediately the leader of the group by virtue of being the only one to speak up for herself with the needlessly gruff Conductor and also the only person in the whole damnable movie who seems to know what’s going on with this whole situation. The train then stops on the “wrong side of the tracks” to pick up “Billy the Lonely Boy” (I swear I’m not making these names up), whom you can tell is poor because he has shitty pajamas and a bad haircut. The mo-cap work for Billy is done by another grown-ass man — Hanks’s Bosom Buddies co-star, Peter Scolari. Is there any way to explain the casting decision here other than “Tom Hanks has a massive ego, and if he wants to have a character voiced by his grandmother and motion-acted by his neighbor’s border collie, so be it”? I think even Sam would agree: Hanks really needed someone to tell him “no” here, even just once.

With these three ostensible heroes now united, the story begins in earnest. The first order of business is refreshments, with Conductor Hanks sing-talking through what has to be the worst godforsaken animated musical sequence in all of recorded history. I mean, just look at this shit:

Again, this came out in the middle of the Pixar age. It’s not that they couldn’t do it better. They just didn’t bother. What’s with the terrible camera angles? Did Zemeckis forget how to frame a shot? It’s animation, Bob. You can literally put the camera wherever you want it to be. Did anyone go home from work after creating this nonsense and think, “I sure did a good job today?” At the 20-second mark of that video, the creature in the right foreground shuffles around the seat, head quivering and arm bent at an angle that somehow not quite normal. That’s nightmare fuel. Perfect if the animators were going for a subtle hint that the North Pole is populated entirely of vampire zombies, shuffling around in human skins only until they’re free to burst forth in their true form and devour the children of the world.

The dancers don’t seem to be bound by the laws of physics in their world — and I’m not talking about the “magic” stuff like spraying scalding hot chocolate all over the cabin of the train or making tables appear from thin air. That’s in the spirit of the thing. I’m talking about the way they seem to glide over the floor or create spaces to move in that weren’t there before. That stuff matters in animation. I can  guarantee you that Pixar animators could tell you how long Andy’s bed is in Toy Story or how much Sully is supposed to weigh in Monsters Inc. You can create magic within the world you build, but you have to build it with rules. If the train car is suddenly twice as wide so you can do a dance number, your audience probably doesn’t consciously notice it, but it does create an unsettled feeling in the backs of their minds.

After that visual assault, Hero Girl takes the extra hot chocolate she stowed back to the next car for Billy the Poor Kid, accompanied by Conductor Mustache. She leaves her ticket on the seat, and inexplicably our Hero Boy decides he needs to take it to her — even though she’s with the Conductor — losing it out the window in the process. What follows is where the movie version really loses the thread of the book. The ticket blows out the window so they can try to recreate some of Van Allsburg’s calm and gorgeous illustrations of the train passing by the wildlife. The Conductor — bizarrely infuriated by the lack of a ticket, even though giving out those magic tickets is ostensibly his job and he’s the only one letting kids on this thrill ride to begin with — drags her toward the back of the still-moving train. “Know It All Kid” (voiced for maximum irritation by Eddie Deezen) informs everyone that they always throw people off the back so they don’t get caught in the wheels, throwing Hero Boy into a panic. Luckily he finds her ticket — which has blown back in the window after being eaten by a nesting eagle and rolled down a hill (again, not making this up) — and tries to prevent the apparent child-murder in progress.

He follows the Conductor’s lantern up on to the top of the train but quickly loses sight of them in the snow. Naturally, he presses on ahead — because walking on top of a moving train is an easy and sensible thing to do — until he sees the light again. Or he thinks he does. Instead he’s stumbled upon the rooftop campsite of the Hobo. Like all adults in this world, the Hobo is voiced by Tom Hanks, now in full-on creep mode. It should be noted that “creepy murder hobo” is nowhere to be found in the source material. This particular nightmare is one Hanks and Zemeckis conjured all on their own. And “nightmare” is the right word.

The middle third of Express plays like someone took a focus group of 8-year-olds, asked them to name their most horrible fears and then tried to work as many of them into 40 minutes of screen time as possible. The kid gets lost in the dark, confronted by an overly familiar stranger, almost falls off a moving train, has to ski down said train while said stranger holds him by the waist, almost crashes into a tunnel wall at speed, is forced to decide in a split second which lever in the locomotive controls the brakes, is strapped to the front of a train, has to save his friend Hero Girl from falling off the engine, nearly drowns when the train almost falls through a frozen lake, and then gets assaulted by a puppet Scrooge straight out of a Stephen King novel as he makes his way back to his seat. A children’s Christmas movie, folks.

And all of this with the same deeply unsettling disregard for any kind of physics that plagued the earlier dance sequence. Sometimes the train weighs hundreds of tons, other times it bounces around like a plastic toy. It’s not magical, it’s wrong, and combined with Hanks’s nails-on-a-chalkboard performances, it makes the whole movie very uncomfortable.

Oddly enough, this parade of horrors isn’t even the worst part of Express. No, that comes next, when Hero Girl and Hero Boy go back to find Billy the Object Lesson and burst into yet another horrible musical sequence. First you have Billy the Seriously Depressing Boy singing about how Santa never comes to his house and Christmas is a sad time. Solid Christmas song material here: “I guess that Santa’s busy, ’cause he never comes around.” Then Hero Girl just busts into Billy’s moment and literally sings over him about how great Christmas is because she always gets a lot of presents and decorations and friends. There’s no “true meaning of Christmas” thing here or anything. It’s not like she tries to convince him that family is the real gift or some nonsense. She just straight-up tells Billy to quit whining about being poor because Christmas is fun. And then they never speak of it again. Kid’s never had a Christmas present in his life, and she just rolls right over him.

A notable digression: Why is Santa such a jerk to poor kids? In this universe, Santa is real. That’s the whole point of this thing. Santa is real, but he’s just let poor Billy suffer for his whole life with no presents? What the hell, Santa? I mean, it’s cool that he gets to ride the magic nightmare train, but what about all the other kids who didn’t get presents? The guy’s not even trying.

Anyway, the train makes it to the North Pole for even more incoherent adventuring. They arrive just in time to ride in Santa’s bag as elves airlift it on to the sleigh. Note to the animators: Maybe don’t make Santa’s bag look quite so scrotal next time? It’s a kids movie, not There’s Something About Mary. Just to finish up the roster, Santa is also played by Tom Hanks, and it’s here in the last few minutes that we finally learn the whole point of this train thing was to bring a bunch of kids to town so Santa could give someone the first gift of Christmas. (You’ll never guess who he picks!) Why Santa chooses to bring scores of kids only to select one at random and set them above all the others is probably a whole other essay, but suffice it to say Santa is a tremendous jerk. It’s also at this point in the movie that Zemeckis remembers that movies are supposed to have plots, so we abruptly return to the idea that young Hero Boy adamantly does not believe in Santa Claus.

Yup. He doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Even as he’s standing in the North Pole, Having ridden a magic train to get there. Actually looking at Santa. That’s not skepticism, that’s a brain disorder. We know he doesn’t believe because he can’t hear Santa’s sleigh bells ring, even as the other children marvel at how beautiful they sound. Then … something changes and suddenly he can hear the bells? I say “something” because this pivotal moment just kind of happens. Hero Boy can’t hear the bells, then he can, and then Santa is picking him to be the Most Special Christmas Boy and receive the first gift and so on. No commentary, dialogue or indication whatsoever of how he got from A to B. He just suddenly believes.

What the hell?

So he asks for that magic bell, then loses it through a hole in his pocket and is sad. Billy the Now Slightly Less Unfortunate But Still Poor Kid gets a gift, his first ever. The train drops Hero Boy off at home, and he goes to bed. In the morning, surrounded by presents, his sister finds one last little box that turns out to be Santa’s bell, with an accompanying note. The audience cheers because at last this thing is over. Hanks gives a last line of dialogue as the narrator, one so effective in the book but so incredibly flat here:

“At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell. But as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”

It works in the book, mostly because the book doesn’t delve into any of this nonsense about the kid not believing in Santa. Instead, the bell plays off the idea that the whole thing could be a dream, leaving the delighted reader knowing for certain that — in the world of the book — the magic was all real. The movie undermines all that magic by leaving us with certain knowledge that the only reason the boy can still hear the bell is that he literally saw Santa, and none of his dumb friends or his sister did so screw ’em. Zemeckis and Hanks somehow read a 30-page picture book and completely missed the point. Belief isn’t particularly powerful when it’s been fully verified and validated by personal experience.

There’s really not enough bad things to say about this movie, and when one actor takes it upon himself to perform every role, he has to bear the brunt of the responsibility for that. Hanks doesn’t just fail to save the movie, he actively makes it worse. His voice acting has none of the enthusiasm that makes me grudgingly love Toy Story. His motion-capture work is equally bad; whether it’s a limitation of the animation or of the actor, it seems like Hanks didn’t realize that mo-cap is hard work. There’s a reason Andy Serkis makes crazy money to bring his characters to life. Hanks lacks the gift of physicality to really shine as a motion-capture subject. His gestures are too small, his movements too self-conscious. Hero Boy, the Conductor, the Hobo, Santa, the Father. They all move the same way, as if it genuinely didn’t occur to Hanks how stilted and awkward that would look onscreen.

I imagine he talked himself into playing all these parts himself as a way to play up the “maybe it’s just a dream” angle. Right before Hero Boy falls asleep at the beginning of the movie, Father-Hanks says “He’s out, an express train wouldn’t wake him up,” ostensibly planting the train-dream seed in his brain. It would be a fairly harmless bit of moviemaking to have you wonder if it’s all a dream populated by different versions of the boy’s father and / or future self, albeit trite and predictable considering audiences have seen it hundreds of times since The Wizard of Oz broke it out for everyone in 1939. I’m trying to be generous, but honestly playing six different characters — including both the narrator / boy and his father — makes even this theory a big stretch. I’m about to blow it up anyway because the movie tells us in the end in no uncertain terms that it was not just a dream: Santa returned the lost bell. In the body of the narrative, they have dismissed the idea that it was a dream, which brings us back to wondering why in the hell Tom Hanks wanted to play all those characters?

If anyone needs more proof that the failure here is Hanks’ self-absorption, look no further than the end credits. There’s a scene I mentioned briefly above where the Hero Boy runs into a ghostly puppet of Ebenezer Scrooge, who growls some nonsense at him about not believing in Santa before he looks up and realizes that the Hobo is controlling the puppet. Keep that in your head. In the movie, we see that the Hobo is controlling the puppet, pulling the strings and speaking for him. In the credits, Hanks lists seven roles for himself: Hero Boy, Hero Boy’s Father, Conductor, Hobo, Santa Claus, the Narrator, and Scrooge Puppet. He gives himself credit — literally a screen credit — for an additional part because one of his characters had a puppet. How self-obsessed do you need to be to make that leap?

Sure, Tom Hanks probably isn’t solely responsible for the terrible animation design and bad music. He’s probably not the only one who signed off on the incoherent script or the only one who somehow misinterpreted the themes of a book targeted at second-graders. Maybe he didn’t even realize how incredibly creepy his Hobo voice was until it was too late. He was a part of all of those things, though, and not just as the bankable star, but also as the executive producer. This movie is an unmitigated disaster, and it has Tom Hanks’s greasy fingerprints on every bit of it. Honestly, if it was the only time Hanks had offended me with his colossal ego and poor acting choices, I might have let it slide. But it’s not the only time. It’s not even one of a few times. And he did the same overreaching again in Cloud Atlas, just a few years later! Hanks — and Zemeckis, who’s been bad enough to deserve his own Hanks for Nothing series — made a terrible movie here. Instead being called to account, Hollywood just keeps offering them dump trucks full of money.

I don’t care how many gushing reviews Sam wants to write: Hanks is a scourge and must be stopped.




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