Daniel Metzger’s review published on Letterboxd:
Warning: this review contains a lot of personal context.
I went back and forth on whether I was going to rewatch this for the Blank Check Zemeckis series. I have not seen this film since it came out in theaters 16 years ago!! (Over half my lifetime!) and a part of me wanted to keep it that way. But alas I decided to board this train one more time...
But first, a little about my personal history with this film. I remember that I and all my siblings were amped for this movie leading up to its release. I couldn’t even tell you why, what kid knows why they’re excited for something. But I remember we were playing The Polar Express online game on the official website constantly. Same goes for The Incredibles. We were playing the games on its official website every day and we were insanely psyched for that movie. It was a big year for official movie websites for my family...good times. Anyways The Incredibles came out a week before Polar Express. We went to see the former on opening day. Loved it obviously. Became our collective favorite film of all time as a family. And then the very next week we went to see The Polar Express in 3D IMAX on opening day. We all walked out of the theater with the same reaction: “we should have just watched The Incredibles again”. I remember it was a deep regret I had at the time that we saw this absolute trash instead of Incredibles for a 2nd time. We went on to see The Incredibles 4 more times in theaters. I never watched The Polar Express again...until now.
I provide all this context of my personal experience because the main thing I want to talk about is how bizarre it is that some families consider this movie a holiday classic. Me personally and my entire family all hated this movie...instantly. I didn’t even enjoy it while I was watching it. And I was 9! This is also probably the first time I was ever really hyped for a movie and was utterly disappointed by it. And it’s probably the fist movie that was aimed at my age group that I hated. There were other movies before this that I didn’t like, but they were movies that really weren’t aimed at kids like A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Ang Lee’s Hulk, and I just thought they were weird and I didn’t get them. But this was supposedly a kids/family movie and I was right in that pocket, my brothers were even younger, and yet it worked for none of us.
So it absolutely confounds me that this movie is an annual tradition for so many people, that it is for anyone honestly. Over the years, whenever this movie would come on TV or be projected onto someone’s house as part of their elaborate Christmas decorations, I would get like a vampire in sunlight, shielding my eyes from the horror. Whenever someone would sing “Believe” the theme song from this at a recital or Christmas program I would actually get mad. I would flare at the nostrils and freakin grit my teeth. This movie made a real negative impression on me folks.
And revisiting this movie finally after all these years, it’s still one of the worst major motion pictures I have ever seen. While it was bizarre and unsettling visually at the time, it’s absolutely nightmarish now. The faces of all the characters in this are absolutely horrific. I re-watched Avatar a couple years ago and discovered it looks like shit now. But it holds up as good a Jurassic Park compared to how Polar Express has aged.
But even if you completely ignore how bad this movie looks, just as a piece of story-telling, it’s horrendous. This movie is just a giant pile of nothing. It’s absolutely meaningless, pointless nonsense. I’ve never seen an epic kid’s journey movie that felt so inconsequential. Like by the time it gets to the end, it feels like “okay that happened”. No one does anything heroic. No one really learns anything meaningful (despite what the Conductor tries to shove down your throat). Just nothing really happens. There’s a different crisis in this movie like every 10 minutes. The train almost derails 5 times. But there’s no overarching conflict or problem at all. By the time they get to the North Pole there’s literally no conflict at all!! It’s literally just the kids wandering around for 25 minutes!!! It’s like Christmas movie 101 that there has to be some kind of problem or conflict and the protagonist(s) have to somehow help Santa save Christmas, but this movie can’t even do that!! The only conflict in this movie is will Hero Boy and sad poor boy believe again? Believe in what? Who the fuck knows!! Literally the message of this movie is “Just Believe”. That’s what the shitty theme song tells you to do over and over again. Even “whatever you believe, believe something” is better than “just believe”. Believe in WHAT???
Sigh....sorry I got a little heated there. I will say there were a couple scenes I found mildly entertaining, namely the Hot Cocoa scene, which I kind of enjoyed but I couldn’t tell you why or in what way. But it put a bemused, perplexed smile on my face so there’s that.
Why do people like this movie????