The Polar Express is creepy. Like, waaaay creepy. It's the only movie that has ever been able to make Tom Hanks come across as a dead-eyed homeless pedophile (and I've seen Turner and Hooch). There are so many things wrong with the character design of that movie, and it all boils down to a technology that just wasn't quite ready to create humans.
I won't go on and on about the uncanny valley and whatnot, because those who've seen The Polar Express know what I mean. Everything looks almost normal, but there's just something really really wrong with the motion capture animation, so much so that not even a Hanksian tidal wave of charm can compensate for those dead, dead eyes.
So years passed and I forgot about this movie. Beowulf came and went. Mars Needs Moms crashed and burned. And then a funny thing happened. I got really into Community, the NBC sitcom that has breathed new life into a dying television network. Community is currently my favorite show on television, and it's created by the inimitable Dan Harmon. The man's a genius, but from all accounts he's not the easiest guy to work with. (He's the only showrunner I've heard of to get kicked off of TWO shows that he co-created. Or something. I try not to follow Twitter nonsense.)
Anyway, Dan Harmon co-wrote Monster House, so that fun tidbit immediately piqued my interest. Would this little cartoon be as witty and meta as Community? Would its script outweight any motion capture creepiness? I had to find out.
So when I sat down to watch this movie, I was all prepared to focus in on the jokes and dialogue and plotting, which, admitted, were all pretty great. (There's a killer uvula joke about halfway through.) Most of the dialogue really lands, and the characters are never less-than-genuine. It's a fun, heartfelt movie.
But what I really took away from this viewing experience is that the animation works! Motion capture works! The characters are all cartoony enough that it doesn't come across as dead-faced robots and Heidi Klums lurching through the film. Like any good cartoon, these characters are like real people, except not. This one movie singlehandedly reignited my faith in motion capture technology.
Not only that, it actually turned me into a fan. I'd never seen so many beautiful, soaring camera angles on a cartoon before. The entire film is kinetic and cinematic and special. It really really soars. I don't know what this movie does differently from something like Beowulf and Polar Express. Maybe it comes down to having characters that don't try to look too human. Maybe it embraces the artificiality of the medium in a way that the others don't. Whatever it is, this is a gorgeous film. Who knew!
And that Chowder character.
That's basically every kid's first best friend.