I just watched The Polar Express again, which got me thinking about Robert Zemeckis, which got me thinking about trying something here: I’m going to have a quick look at his body of work as a director – at least everything I’m familiar with – give some quick comments, and rate ’em with my little faces system. Then we’ll average it all out and see where I stand.
First of all, here is a list of all the features he’s directed, according to IMDB, which I haven’t seen:
• Used Cars (1980)
• Death Becomes Her (1992)
• What Lies Beneath (2000) – in spite of being a fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford
• Beowulf (2007)
• A Christmas Carol (2009)
• Flight (2012)
So those movies are off the table. Here’s what we are rating the director on, with my comments:
1. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)
The director’s first feature film, although not by any means the first one that I saw. This film is a comedy about a group of teenagers who head to New York City to try to catch a glimpse of the Beatles upon their arrival in America in 1964. I watched this on my wife’s recommendation, and found it to be mildly diverting but not really engaging on any particular level, in spite of the fact that I quite like the Beatles. Trivia: two of the co-stars of this ensemble, Marc McClure and Wendie Jo Sperber, were both later cast by Zemeckis as Marty McFly’s siblings in Back to the Future, Dave and Linda McFly.
2. Romancing the Stone (1984)
I’ll always remember seeing one of the endorsements for this film saying something like, “The best movie of it’s type since Raiders of the Lost Ark!” And all I could wonder is really, how many films of this type had been made since Raiders of the Lost Ark? Regardless of that, this was my first exposure to Zemeckis’ work, and I enjoyed it immensely, seeing it at least a couple of times in the theatre. It’s a comedy, an adventure story, and a romance, and it manages to juggle all three elements really well. Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, and Danny DeVito are all wonderful, and it’s one of three Zemeckis films that I’d consider to be “Top 100-worthy”, and when I mentioned it to my wife yesterday she responded that that’d be a film worth having around. Oddly, it was only when I was reading up for this post that I realized that Zemeckis had not directed the sequel – The Jewel of the Nile. I’ve no idea where I got that idea, unless it was when I was much younger and just assumed that of course the original director would return for the sequel. In any case, he didn’t.
3. Back to the Future (1985)
I’ve got a whole “time travel in the movies” post brewing around in my mind somewhere that will reference this film a bit, I’m sure. But time enough for that later. For now, it’s enough to say that this film was a complete winner back in its day. We had two familiar and likeable stars in a great story with a memorable premise and the perfect blend of science fiction and comedy. We also had Lea Thompson – who I had a big crush on – and Crispin Glover – who I did not yet realize how creepy he is – balancing out the cast. I haven’t seen this film for years aside from a couple of minutes at the beginning (when Marty knocks himself off his feet with his super-loud amp, and it looked pretty dated. But I think the film overall would still be a lot of fun.
4. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
The bit near the start of this movie, when the animated section ends and Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman walk off the set of the cartoon still sticks with me as one of the most worldview shattering moments of a film that I can recall. The technical achievement combined with the energy and humor of the situation was something unlike anything my younger self had experienced before. And the rest of the film lived up to this promise, with a fascinating blend of nostalgia and innovation keeping me thoroughly engaged until the end. Really, Bob Hoskins should have been nominated for an Oscar here.
5. Back to the Future, Part II (1989)
I know this film has fans. I’ve met them. Many of them are friends of mine. They consider it the natural extension of the original, perhaps being too young to have experienced the first film as a standalone work with an ending that was intended as great stinger rather than a set up for a sequel. The ending of the first film did not set up a sequel except for in the most superficial ways – a fact that is obvious when you realize that they had to completely invent a whole new character flaw for Marty just to give him an arc to go through. Anyway, I have only seen this film once, when it first came out, but I absolutely hated it. All the energy is wasted in clever split-screen effects and multiple Michael J. Fox’s rather than in finding a new and engaging story to tell with these characters. I used to refer to this movie as “Back to the Horrible Future Part Too Bad” – I know that’s not particularly clever but I mention it just to illustrate the frustration I felt over this experience.
6. Back to the Future, Part III (1990)
Whilst the second film in the series really plumbed new depths of displeasure for me, this installment just came across as a bit of a lame film. I didn’t like it, but more easily forgot it. Except for that ridiculous ending where Elizabeth Shue stumbles through saying something like, “The paper is blank!” like she’s just discovered the secret to cold fusion, and Christopher Lloyd’s character exalts like a lunatic that “The future is unwritten!” changing his mind off-screen about everything he’d been concerned about for the entirety of the trilogy (a character beat that the guy already had back in Part I, by the way). That was stupid.
7. Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump is on my list of most highly overrated films of all time – or it would be if I ever formalized such a list. It’s not that it’s outright bad in any particular way, it’s just all the acclaim and hype the film received at the time it came out made this quirky and potentially charming though humanistic little story feel like a colossal waste of time. Of course it’s not, but it’s also not a timeless classic for the ages or an indication of the triumph of the human spirit either. It is a clever little story of seemingly profound fool who unwittingly intersects with historical events, thanks to some pretty impressive movie effects, and it’s got a few things to say about love and relationships. But in spite of all that, it’s actually pretty forgettable.
8. Contact (1997)
An intelligent and procedural science fiction tale that builds up a lot of anticipation, and then pulls out an ending that might have been original if it were only not for all those years of Star Trek: The Next Generation that had come out in the preceding decade. Of course, the novel it’s based on came out before all that, but then movies are movies and books are books, and so that doesn’t help make it any more interesting for me. Annoying.
9. Castaway (2000)
A film that has nothing wrong with it, per se, and yet I don’t really like it. It’s compelling, intense, and is by far the best film I’ve ever seen in which a man must knock out his own tooth with a rock. I think Tom Hanks is good in it, but your mileage may vary depending on how much you can deal with him monologuing to his volleyball. I guess my objection stems from my utter disinterest in ever watching it again. The movie is a bit like being forced to survive on a desert island: it’s character building, and like many character building experiences, it’s one that I value having had but never want to repeat.
10. The Polar Express (2004)
And so we get to the film that inspired this post. A lot of Robert Zemeckis’ career as a director seems has involved developing new breakthroughs in special and animated effects. Sometimes this has worked really well (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and other times, it’s felt like it’s just playing around for the sake of it. That is definitely the feeling I get from The Polar Express, a motion-capture animated fantasy story of young boy who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus getting whisked away by a magic train that proves him wrong. Having Tom Hanks play half a dozen characters (including at least one that look exactly like him) just adds to the goofiness, and makes it harder to forget that this is a movie and to just enter into the story. The film entranced my kids (and at least one adult that I know) – but they were also entranced by Alvin & the Chipmunks. I found it tedious and heavy, lacking in the joy you’d hope for such a film, and ended up feeling the whole thing was more of an elaborate but private project these guys were doing, rather than a story I was invited to actually take part in.
That’s been largely boosted up by those three “amongst my favorites” of his work from the 1980’s, and pretty much nothing since then. No surprise that I never felt to run after Beowulf or A Christmas Carol. But then I see that he has Yellow Submarine in production, according to IMDB. A remake of a trippy animated Beatles film? That might earn enough brownie points for me to check it out, in spite of the 3D. We’ll see.
(Edited to add):
Oh well, a little more digging seems to indicate that Zemeckis’ Yellow Submarine has been cancelled.