HOLLYWOOD – Sometimes people invent cars no one wants to buy. Sometimes people dream up soda pop no one wants to drink. And sometimes filmmakers make movies with an exotic new technology that no one wants to see, such as, ahem, “The Polar Express.”
A hugely expensive gamble that has landed with an Edsel-like thud at the box office, the $170 million Robert Zemeckis-directed film finds itself sandwiched between two other family movies, Pixar’s wildly successful “The Incredibles” and “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” which got a big rollout from Paramount Pictures over the weekend.
As is often the case in Hollywood, the body was barely cold when the postmortems came flooding in. A week and a half ago, when “Polar Express” had been open for all of about 45 hours, a rival studio executive assessed its chances of success: “It’s a disaster.”
By the next Monday, everyone was on the phone with typical expressions of faux concern. “Oh, that’s so horrible about ‘Polar Express,’” one agent said. “Warners must have black crepe in all the windows,” which is Hollywood-ese for, “Thank God I don’t have a client in that movie.”
If nothing else, “Polar Express” is a cautionary tale about how there are no sure things in Hollywood, even when a big star such as Tom Hanks and a top director such as Zemeckis are at the helm. Having bought the rights to the 29-page children’s book with the same title years ago, Hanks teamed up with Zemeckis, who made “Forrest Gump” (1994) with the actor. The director has been one of Hollywood’s leading exponents of special-effects wizardry, dating back to his magical marriage of live action and cartoon thrills in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988).
What went wrong? First off, special effects don’t come cheaply – and neither did the “Express” talent.
Even worse, the technology takes the star out of the movie. He may play five parts, but there’s no Tom Hanks in the film. Not only is his face gone, but the performance capture somehow leaches his trademark charm and everyday humanity off the screen as well.
The technology also brings out the worst in Zemeckis. Earlier in his career, he made irresistibly airy, exuberant comedies, but his more recent films have been increasingly chilly and soulless, qualities that deaden “Polar Express” as much as its technology does.
Then the film’s performance-capture technology turned out to be a bigger turnoff than Warners imagined. Children who saw the film’s TV spots had trouble identifying with the characters, who appear not only remote and zombie-like, but oddly old-fashioned, as if they escaped from a Norman Rockwell etching.
As Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern put it: “It’s not just an epidemic of dead eyes, but deadened features that make the kids look bleak, sleep deprived or simply sad.”
When you’re competing against the lively, cutting-edge technology of a Pixar film such as “The Incredibles” or a film with the playful charm of “SpongeBob,” sad and sleep deprived is a tough sell.
The biggest cause for second-guessing has come from Warners’ decision to release the film five days after “The Incredibles,” which is sort of like a guy taking a girl out on a date right after she’s spent the night with George Clooney. Pixar is a tough act to follow.
On the other hand, what was Warners to do? If you have a Christmas movie, you can’t wait until Christmas to release it, because after the holiday your business drops off a cliff.
Although it seems hard to believe, Warners was actually more concerned about coming out after “SpongeBob” than “The Incredibles,” in part because the studio thought the Pixar film might underperform. Warners’ thinking may have been influenced by the fact that “Incredibles” director Brad Bird’s last film, “Iron Giant” (1999), was a flop for Warners, which perhaps made it easier for the studio to take a dim view of his new film.
Warners is putting a brave face on things, saying it’s way too early to declare defeat, noting that exit polls have been strong for “Polar Express.” Studio executives also point to “Elf,” a New Line film that had a $31 million opening weekend last year, yet went on to make $173 million in domestic grosses.
Alas, “Elf” cost about $140 million less than “Express” and got far better reviews. Warners discounts the high-profile bad reviews for “Express,” saying that elite media publications are out of touch with heartland moviegoers.
However, a quick search turned up negative reviews in such towns as Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C.
What really seems like wishful thinking is Warners’ belief that the film’s box-office performance will somehow improve as the holidays grow near. This ignores the fact that studio tent-pole movies don’t build an audience from word of mouth, the way independent films do.