A breakdown of Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture films and why they are great

Ebenezer Scrooge as he appears in
Ebenezer Scrooge as he appears in 'A Christmas Carol' (Image via Disney/Image Movers)

With Robert Zemeckis’ new film Pinocchio being released in theaters, it seems only appropriate to look back on some of Robert Zemeckis’ earlier films of the 2000s. Of course, what is being referred to are the motion capture films that the director pioneered.


The film opened to a more mixed reception than expected, and underperformed at the box office. Many critics and fans claimed that the film's look, feel and characters fell into the uncanny valley, which made the them look as realistic as possible but in a plasticized and dead-eyed fashion which made several viewers feel creeped out.

However, there is more to these films than meets the eye (or dead-eyes for that matter). Once people look beyond the well-mastered CGI and rubber faces, it becomes clearer that these films are incredibly entertaining in their own right.

Exploring the world of Robert Zemeckis' motion-picture films

1) The Polar Express


It all truly began with this movie. After director Robert Zemeckis took a four-year hiatus from directing, he got back into the director’s chair and took on the 3-D digital world.

The film, based on a 1985 book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, follows a young boy who becomes skeptical about Santa Claus' existence.

When the boy is asleep in her room on Christmas Eve, he hears a loud train rolling on a track and to his astonishment, the train is right in front of his house. The train's conductor, Tom Hanks, beckons the boy and some other kids to join him to travel to the North Pole.

While hesitant at first, the boy hops aboard the train and goes on the greatest adventure of his life while learning some valuable lessons.

The film’s beauty doesn't really come from its CG artistry but rather its provocative themes of believing and seeing. Of course, Hanks plays about half of the roles in the film, but if seeing it the first time, one would realize that. The Polar Express tugs at the heartstrings with subtle ease and its high-flying action only adds to its wondrous spectacle.

It was also marked in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first fully motion-capture film to be released in theaters. The movie is so dazzling to behold that it's unbelievable that it didn’t get higher praise when it was initially released.

The film seems overrated for no apparent reason other than that it wasn’t live-action or animated, and was sworn to a medium that seemed new to viewers, which is not its fault. As time went on, it became a classic and is played every Christmas. So, it’s obvious that this film won’t be going out of style anytime soon.

2) Beowulf


Three years after the release of The Polar Express, Zemeckis took on the darker and more gory film, Beowulf, enlisting the help of Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, and Angelina Jolie. The film is based upon an Old English epic poem by an unknown poet. In the story, an evil monster named Grendel terrorizes the inhabitants of Mead Hall.

After the foul creature destroys their night of merry-making, they call upon a warrior named Beowulf who attempts to vanquish the monster. Although the warrier succeeds in his fateful task, he is faced with another, more powerful menace that plagues the people of the mead hall.

The film is bloody, bold, and glorious to watch. To be clear, this is not for children by any stretch of the mind. Zemeckis went all out with this film and held nothing back. Admittedly, in some instances, it might remind viewers of a video game but proves to be quite entertaining and transforms an old poem into a thing of beauty.

The characters seem so realistic that you almost forget that they are CG replicas of the real actors. Robert Zemeckis claimed that the technology has advanced since The Polar Express, as they used the mo-cap technology to give the characters’ eyes more dimensions and look more human.

Surprisingly, the movie only made $196 million at the box office against its $150 million budget. However, it was more positively received than the first film but not as remembered.

3) A Christmas Carol


The final performance-capture film to be directed by Robert Zemeckis was 2009’s A Christmas Carol. The director decided to cast Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Jim Carrey as the main cast of the Christmas flick.

It is based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel of the same name. Zemeckis decided to be the sole writer of the film and utilized Dickens’ source material without straying away from the 19th Century dialog.

A Christmas Carol centers around the lonely, miserly, and misanthropic Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey), who loathes absolutely everything about Christmas. However, on Christmas Eve night, he is visited by the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman). Marley warns Scrooge that his greed and misdeeds will lead him to an afterlife of pain and suffering.

As a result, he is visited by three spirits who teach him the true meaning of the holidays.

Like the two mo-cap films before it, this was as visually stunning and beautifully made with a lavish score written by Zemeckis’ long-time collaborator Alan Silvestri. After his third crack at a motion capture film, it’s obvious that Robert Zemeckis has a propensity for making some of the most dazzling films with the most grounded storytelling.

The film elevates itself above most iterations of the classic with the help of game performances, honoring the source material and its visual style. This made the most money out of all of the mo-cap Robert Zemeckis movies but was still criticized for its special effects being overwhelming. Of course, that seems like more of a petty comment than actual criticism.

Final Consensus

Director Robert Zemeckis (Image via NBC)
Director Robert Zemeckis (Image via NBC)

The films prove their visual dominance in CGI but that isn’t all that they should be remembered for. These films have more heart, emotional depth, and a human touch than many other “live-action” films that have come before and after them. Many critics call them soulless but just because the medium is différent doesn't mean these films need to be cast aside.

Writing these films off is incredibly disrespectful to Robert Zemeckis and all of his work. Give credit where credit is due. Robert Zemeckis led a trilogy of movies into an era of new and improved digital technology and special effects and without these films, we probably would have never gotten James Cameron’s Avatar. Anyone working closely with Robert Zemeckis should be proud.

That’s just some food for thought for any and all filmgoers. A critical reassessment of these films will be imminent.

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