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Why “The Polar Express” is so Horrifying: The Uncanny Valley Phenomenon

“The Polar Express”, based on the extremely popular book by Chris Van Allsburg and directed by Robert Zemeckis, is one of the most widely known Christmas films of the 21st century. From Tom Hanks’s marvelous performance, in which he voices several characters, to the heartwarming message of encouraging people to believe in the seemingly impossible, it is considered a staple for many during the Holiday season. However, if you have ever brought up the movie in conversation, you may have noticed that some people have varied opinions of the animated film.

IMDb.com features nearly 600 audience reviews of the film and shows an overall rating of 6.6/10 stars. Some reviewers describe the animation as “almost unreal”, “lifeless”, “peculiar”, and “unusual”, while another refers to the main characters as “some kids with creepy dead eyes”. At the same time, other reviews comment that the animation is “stunning, scene after scene” and that the visual effects are “pure Cinemagic”. Regardless of what response the visual effects produce, there is hardly one review that doesn’t at least mention the incredibly lifelike animation. This leads to the question: What about these animated characters is so bizarre? The answer is a phenomenon that has confused people for years. It is a phenomenon known as “The Uncanny Valley”.

The Uncanny Valley Phenomenon was coined by Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1970. Mori explained that “a person’s response to a humanlike robot would abruptly shift from empathy to revulsion as it approached, but failed to attain, a lifelike appearance”.

Sources

IMDb, The Polar Express

IEEE Spectrum, The Uncanny Valley: The Original Essay by Masahiro Mori

RogerEbert.com, ‘Polar Express’ rides the rails through a child’s heightened reality

Stranger Dimensions, 10 Creepy Examples of the Uncanny Valley

Hi there! My name is Maddie and I am a first-year student at UCSD in Eleanor Roosevelt College. I am from Santa Cruz, California and I am so excited to be living in La Jolla. I am extremely passionate about social justice and mental health advocacy and I am so excited to be a part of the Her Campus team!
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