When ‘Polar Express’ Met The New York Times – Deadline
by: Zizi Abdel Ghaffar
Here they come again, those holiday perennials. Movies, both good and bad, that year after year find their way back into theaters, onto small screens and deep into stockings that still get stuffed with digital discs.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas. A Christmas Story. Love Actually. It’s a Wonderful Life, of course. A Christmas Carol, ad infinitum. Nutcracker after Nutcracker after Nutcracker.
My personal favorite, released 19 years ago, on Nov. 10, 2004, by Warner Bros., is The Polar Express from the technophile director Robert Zemeckis (whose latest, Here, is upcoming).
This isn’t a sentimental choice, at least not in the conventional sense. It’s just that every time the picture pops up—and its seasonal DVDs are strung merrily across the Internet, from Amazon to Target—it reminds me of an important life lesson. That is: It’s much easier not to be an editor, especially at The New York Times.
When the Zemeckis Christmas fable—which starred Tom Hanks in a pioneering mash-up of live action and digital animation—was released, I was entering my third month as the movie editor of The Times. It was a new position, part of a since-revised policy that aimed to put battle-hardened “experts” in charge of specific cultural areas like film, television, books or theater.
What qualified me as an expert, I suppose, was a largely unsuccessful nine-year tour as a would-be film producer, plus about a dozen years reporting on Hollywood for too many publications. I’d been around.
But I hadn’t been around long enough to realize that at The New York Times, no matter what they say in the job description—“You’ll be in charge of the movie coverage”—nobody is (or at least was, back then) in charge of anything. Rather, all those ambitious and talented people at The Times, with overlapping titles and responsibilities, are caught up in a tenuous political web that somehow gets the news out (mostly), and leaves almost everyone involved at least a little bit unhappy.
On the plus side of the ledger, I’d more or less figured this out by the time Polar Express came up against the estimable co-chief film critic Manohla Dargis, who was then also fairly new to the paper.
To make a long story short, Manohla didn’t like the movie. I mean, really didn’t like it. The picture, she wrote, was “a grave and disappointing failure.” It was plagued by the “eerie listlessness” of its characters’ faces. The North Pole workshop looked like a “munitions factory.” Santa’s big entrance in front of the elves, said Dargis, evoked “however unconsciously, one of Hitler’s Nuremberg rally entrances in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.”
That’s pretty rough stuff. But in the way of The Times, it was not my problem, nor even that of the fellow editor who was handling the copy. Critics are entitled to their opinions. Almost.
Where things got sticky was at the very tail end of a long second paragraph, at which point Manohla compared Santa’s big sack of toys to, yes, “an airborne scrotum.”
I don’t know how it works now, but at the time, The Times had a mortal prohibition against unnecessary vulgarity. And, frankly, I wasn’t crazy about the anatomical reference. But my job, as it fell out, was to make sure the critic was protected in her choice of words.
Which, diving into the scrum, I did, or more accurately, helped to do (there couldn’t have been fewer than six or seven editors involved). To explain why, in the review of a G-rated kids’ film, we needed a glandular reference wasn’t easy, particularly since I thought an overgrown walnut or something would have served as well.
But I advocated, and somehow the review as written prevailed, much to the chagrin of Warner’s understandably aroused publicity staff. To a point, it helped that Dave Kehr, another Times writer, a couple weeks earlier had done a long, sympathetic feature on the picture. As every bruised publicist knows, you win some, you lose some.
Anyway, I never did try to supervise the critics. I’m not that dumb. More, I ferociously defended Manohla when a certain famous movie producer cornered me over lunch, and tried to suggest that Dargis, with her often salty opinions, was ‘bad for the industry.’ For the movie industry, maybe. For the newspaper business, not at all.
But the incident left me with a certain soft spot for The Polar Express. The picture opened well enough, airborne genitals notwithstanding, and it was re-released, year after year, through at least 2010.
And every time it surfaces—the DVD is $9.99 at Walmart right now—I get those bittersweet memories of lessons learned, and of holidays past.