(movie review written in 2004)
When it was released last year, "The Polar Express" came in with a very mild $23m on its opening weekend. But, with good word-of-mouth and repeat business (not to mention a successful IMAX run that will likely reoccur this year, as the movie is apparently going to have a brief large-format release), "Polar Express" kept rolling along throughout the holiday season.
The film, which is based upon the short tale from Chris Van Allsburg, is a completely digitally animated feature, putting to use motion capture and many other forms of digital technology. What's pleasing and refreshing about the film is that, while there are moments that use the digital technology to create flashy sequences, there are plenty of moments that use CGI to create awe-inspiring, painting-like moments, such as when the Polar Express pulls up to the house of the main character on a cold, snowy night. Some have complained that the character animation is "creepy", but I didn't find that while watching the film theatrically or on DVD. While it's apparent that the motion capture technology (the animated characters have movements that were done by actors using motion capture) has a bit of a way to go, it's still impressive.
The film focuses on a young boy who deeply wants to believe in Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the boy is startled by a rumble that shakes his house. Waiting directly outside is a locomotive that has slipped through the chilly night air. Inquiring to the conductor (Tom Hanks) about the train, the boy is informed that this is the Polar Express and the final destination happens to be the North Pole.
Once aboard, the boy finds a series of assorted other children, including a know-it-all (Eddie Deezen) kid who is so annoying that you wish he'd be thrown off the train. The train sequences do a fairly good job at extending what was originally a short story, creating some drama regarding a lost ticket and a dangerous race across a frozen lake. There's even another semi-action sequence once the kids finally arrive at North Pole during Christmas preparations. There's still definitely the feeling at times that filler was needed to get the story out to feature length, but the pacing is still zippy throughout much of the running time.
The voice work (Hanks takes on several roles) is uniformly excellent, although once again, Deezen nails the train's most irritating passenger a little too well. Director Robert Zemeckis and his legion of digital artists have still given the film a lot of warmth and heart, and, despite the fact that there's not a lot of story to be found here and some of it is more action-oriented, the filmmakers do succeed very well in making the film's set of emotional moments genuine and enjoyable.
Overall, "Polar Express" is an example of a rather simple tale told with a hefty helping of spirit and adventure. There are some minor concerns, but the tale is otherwise a holiday journey that's a lot of fun.
4 pair of 3D glasses (the old fashioned kind) are included.
VIDEO: This edition of "Polar Express" is presented in 2.35:1 (1080p/VC-1) in both 2D & 3D versions. For those who are comfortable watching old-fashioned 3D for nearly two hours (some are, some aren't), the 3D experience is rather fun. However, the 2D version is astonishing, and clearly leaves the DVD edition out in the cold. I don't remember the film looking this good when I saw it theatrically. Sharpness and detail are extraordinary, as hairs, clothes and the texture of the train interiors that seemed soft on the DVD are now seen with remarkable clarity this time around. Although the 2D version isn't "3-D", it certainly as a three-dimensional feel, as the level of depth to the image is jaw-dropping.
Flaws? Well, there aren't any - this is a totally pristine presentation throughout. If the level of detail wasn't awesome enough, the film's rich color palette also gets a boost here, as the film's color palette looks more noticeably more dynamic and rich on the Blu-Ray than it did on the DVD. The DVD just doesn't do the animation justice at all, as the Blu-Ray presentation is simply a magnificent, reference quality transfer.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. The film's audio presentation was also a delight, as the film took advantage of the opportunities present during the feature to envelop the audience with the action going on in the feature. The sequences on the train certainly put the rear speakers to good use, with a nice helping of ambience and occasional sound effects. The rumble of the train was also quite powerful, and Alan Silvestri's score sounded rich and full. Dialogue remained crisp and easily understood, as well. The Dolby TrueHD audio option provided some upgrades, including fuller, deeper bass and crisper, fuller-sounding effects.
EXTRAS: The first feature is "You Look Familiar", which details the performance capture work that was done to capture the performances of Hanks and others in order to create the movements of the film's animated characters. We also hear some tidbits about the creation of the film and how Hanks came aboard. What's great about this featurette is how footage of the performance capture work is shown alongside the scene from the final film.
"Genuine Ticket to Ride" starts with a brief intro and then offers a group of five featurettes - “Performance Capture”, “Virtual Camera”, “Hair and Wardrobe”, “Creating the North Pole” and “Music” - that run a little over eleven minutes. As a whole, the piece doesn't go in-depth, but at least offers some enjoyable tidbits about the production.
"Josh Groban at the Greek" offers a performance from the singer, and that clip is supplemented by a "making of" for the song. I didn't find either piece too interesting, but Groban's fans may enjoy. "Meet the Snow Angels" offers holiday memories from members of the cast and crew and "Polar Express Challenge" is an interactive game for kids. "True Inspiration: An Author’s Adventure" is a brief look at the career of Chris Van Allsberg. Finally, "Stocking Stuffers" is a series of hidden bonus clips on the second disc.
While this is clearly a film targeted towards children, it does have an all-ages appeal, and it's unfortunate that Warner Brothers has decided to produce such a kid-focused supplemental section. With the innovative technology it took to produce the feature, I was hoping for a commentary or more about the making of the film than a handful of very short featurettes.
Final Thoughts: "Polar Express" is a delightful family holiday feature, and the film uses remarkable technology to create some stunning visuals. This Blu-Ray edition boasts a 2D version with incredible image quality, as well as an old-fashioned 3D version as a bonus. Recommended.
The Film B+