Ho Ho Nope: The Polar Express & the Uncanny Valley

I read a creepy Christmas factoid the other day that I wanted to share with you all, in the spirit of the approaching holiday season. But first, some context:

You may remember from my Halloween movie roundup post that my partner and I love to make movie lists. Well, the holidays are another one of those times for us. We have vastly different tastes in holiday movies, but there’s one that we can both agree will never make the list.

When I was growing up, my younger brother REALLY loved the movie The Polar Express. We watched it multiple times every year, and not just at Christmas. But try as I might, I just couldn’t seem to get on the hype train. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not necessarily a bad movie. The idea of it is actually quite sweet. But there has always just been something about the movie that put me off, and I could never put my finger on it…

Until now.

As it turns out, a lot of people feel the same way about that train wreck–no pun intended–of a Christmas movie. To better illustrate what I’m about to (attempt to) describe, let’s start with a little experiment. Take a look at the faces below. How do they make you feel?

If any of these gave you the ick or even just made you mildly uncomfortable, you’re far from the only one. And for that, we have the uncanny valley to thank.

Masahiro Mori

The uncanny valley is a concept describing that uneasy or eerie feeling we get when we see something that looks almost human… but not quite. A good example, for me at least, would be those ultra-realistic baby dolls that are supposed to look and feel like real human babies. But at the end of the day, they’re just not, and I think they’re super creepy. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the Cats movie for the same reason.

The uncanny valley was first theorized in the 70s by Japanese roboticist and professor Masahiro Mori, using the term bukimi no tani genshō’ (不気味の谷現象). The English translation by Jasia Reichardt popped up later on in 1978, and quickly gained traction as we made more and more advances in robotics and AI. The uncanny valley isn’t limited to visual human-ish entities, either. Some people experience the uncanny valley with audio, such as the not-quite-human voices of Alexa, Siri and even GPS assistants.

Professor Mori used a scatter plot to visually explain how the uncanny valley works. But since everyone experiences it differently, I thought it would be fun to make my own:

As you can see, in my world The Polar Express lives right smack at the bottom of the valley. I don’t know if it’s the dead, soulless eyes, the creepy way they move or the way their mouths just don’t quite line up with their speech properly… But every single character in that movie sets my teeth on edge in the worst way. The glasses kid, especially. That grin still haunts my nightmares.

When it comes to animation, there’s a fine line to tread between “wow, look at how realistically they animated Moana’s hair! That’s so cool!” and “wow, that CGI child looks haunted.” It tends to throw off the heartwarming holiday vibes when the characters look a little too real for comfort, but not human enough for us to be okay with it.

Anyway, this was somewhat of a random post… But I hope you enjoyed it anyway!

I’m genuinely curious to know what your uncanny valley chart would look like in comparison to mine. What hyper-realistic, almost-human-but-not-really things give you the creepy crawlies? How far will you go, in terms of realism, before something goes from impressive to creepy? Sound off in the comments or send me a message on Twitter or Instagram!

© Victoria St. Michael 2021


See also: The Ooky Spooky Halloween Tag

2 thoughts on “Ho Ho Nope: The Polar Express & the Uncanny Valley

  1. Biren says:

    What a post, Vic!! I really wasn’t aware about this Uncanny Valley but this seems so interesting to experience. I must say, you’ve articulated and depicted your thoughts and viewpoint so diligently out here with quite an impressive chart. Yes, that description and the interpretation of that chart has taken me till the end of this post and indeed it made me feel like “this needs to be experienced”. I actually don’t know what’s there as an uncanny valley for me just as Polar Express for you but simply like the way you’ve brought it up!! I might try to figure out for me and probably let you know!! And as always, it’s an amazing post of yours which I love to read especially because of your writing skills which everytime takes me to the tour!!

    Liked by 1 person

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