I have to admit that at first I was scared to see 'The Polar Express.' Between its images of a seemingly mummified Tom Hanks and all these little computer-generated tykes with their pasty faces and zombie eyes, the trailer quite honestly made it look less like a heartwarming family film and more like some sort of North Pole of the Damned.
But lo and behold, when the family finally dragged me out to see the flick a few years back, somehow I survived the experience without suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Though I can't say I found the film as "wondrous" and "dazzling" as its marketing promised, after a while the film's motion control capture CGI began to blur into abstraction and I was ultimately able to immerse myself in the story. Still, 'The Polar Express' remains a film that's constantly in danger of its visual style overwhelming its subject matter, and the latter only barely ekes out a victory by film's end.
The story itself should be familiar to many, as it is based on the popular illustrated children's book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. Looking back, I suppose the book always had the makings of a classic Christmas movie stamped all over it -- simple, universal, full of exciting action-adventure setpieces, and what kid doesn't love Santa Claus? The story concerns itself with "Hero Boy" (Tom Hanks, performing one of six different roles), a little Scrooge-in-the-making who has no use for Santa Claus and pre-sold holiday cheer. But then, on the night before Christmas, a mysterious locomotive pulls up in front of Hero Boy's house. Driven by the mysterious Conductor (Hanks again), the train whisks Hero Boy and a dozen other young travelers away on the journey of a lifetime. Overcoming all manner of thrills and spills on their way to the North Pole, ultimately our little Doubting Thomas will come face-to-face with Saint Nick, and will at last learn the true meaning of Christmas.
I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the film's target audience, but I'm also not immune to the powers of such fare. Unfortunately, 'The Polar Express' failed to cast a spell on me personally. Although the story itself may be enduring, taken in the context of a million other Christmas movies, it's a bit of a shopworn cliche. In fact, arguably the only thing truly "new" about the film is its technology, and like all effects-driven movies the shelf life of this stuff is short.
Even worse, ultimately the film fails to deliver where so many other modern flicks of its sort excel. Without giving away of the film's secrets, the moral of the story more or less boils down to the idea that Christmas rocks because you get presents. Forgive me, but I expected something a bit deeper. What about the value of selflessness? Sharing? Caring? Giving without receiving? Quite frankly, the morose, self-involved little brats riding 'The Polar Express' deserved to spend their Christmas Day working in a soup kitchen, not walking away with a new iPod.
All cynicism aside, 'The Polar Express' is certainly still a fun ride. Though nothing in a home theater environment will rival seeing the film in IMAX 3-D, it's hard to imagine kids not enjoying the spectacle of this film. The train-as-rollercoaster-scene, the slide ride at the North Pole present factory and the big finale are all thrilling sequences, and overall the film's visuals are a sight to behold. Though I found 'The Polar Express' emotionally hollow, I can't say I didn't enjoy taking in the sheer majesty of its technical achievement.
Coming a good year after the original HD DVD release, Warner has finally issued 'The Polar Express' on Blu-ray. Although this another in the studio's growing line of reheated 1080p/VC-1 encodes (identical to the HD DVD), I'm just as impressed with the image quality now as I was a year ago.
The advertising campaign for 'The Polar Express' focused heavily on the film's pioneering animation, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Produced entirely in the digital realm, the actors where photographed using motion-control technology, which produced the most photo-realistic humans ever seen in an all-CGI feature. As I mentioned above, although I personally find the technique somewhat unsettling, there's no denying that 'The Polar Express' is a beautiful-looking film.
As a direct-to-digital transfer, the source material is absolutely flawless. Physical imperfections such as dropouts, blemishes, dirt and grain are nowhere to be found, and since every last pixel was created on a computer, the image has that impossibly stable and consistent look that only animated features can have. That said, the transfer has a somewhat misty sheen to it that is entirely intentional. This may not make it as absolutely razor-sharp as some other animated features, but it faithfully replicates both of the theatrical showings of the film I saw (yes, I saw it twice). Depth is often exquisite, with even the most minute image details apparent, from texture on snowflakes in wide shots to the finely-crafted buildings and landscapes of the North Pole. Texture, too, is often extraordinary for a CGI-animated film. In particular, various peices of clothing, such as the felt and fur of Santa's suit, are amazingly lifelike and realistic.
If I have any hesitation in giving this one top marks, it's because 'The Polar Express' teeters on the brink of being oversaturated. Having said that, I saw no chroma noise or bleeding, even on the toughest hues (such as the rich reds of Santa's outfit). The majority of the film boasts incredibly rich "fleshtones," as oranges bathe the characters in an almost heavenly glow. I also admired the rich blue-purples of the nighttime scenes, and the the film's third act at the North Pole is flush with a wide palette of gorgeous primary colors.
Likely in an effort to keep parity with the previous HD DVD release, Warner is not offering any sort of high-resolution audio option on this Blu-ray edition of 'Polar Express.' To be fair, the Dolby Dolby 5.1 Surround track that is included (at 640kbps, identical to the HD DVD) is perfectly fine, but a film as sonically adventurous as this deserves better.
That said, for a standard Dolby track this is good stuff, with a very open and spacious soundfield. The rear channels are particularly impressive with subtle and discrete sounds. I was often amazed at how lifelike and immersive the various train sounds felt, whether it be the humming metal or the puff-puff-puff of the steam engine. A couple of sequences really stand out, noticeably the train-as-rollercoaster crash, and the kids sliding through the chutes of the toy factory. Imaging here is fabulous, and I felt surrounded by a near wall-of-sound. Really fun stuff.
Technical aspects of the mix are also excellent. Dynamic range and low-bass extension impress, with the chugging of the train a particular highlight. Likewise, Alan Silvestri's score is nicely balanced throughout, filling out the front speakers to great effect. The film's somewhat eerie dialogue is always front and center in the mix, and I never once had to do any volume adjustments to compensate.
No big surprises here. Warner includes all the same extras as the previous HD DVD, which itself was a port of the old standard-def disc release. It's a decent package, but nothing special, and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a double dip for this title sometime in the next few years.
The heart of the making-of material focuses on the film's groundbreaking motion-control capture technology. "You Look Familiar" shows Tom Hanks wearing one of those funny suits with little pinpoints on it so that his movements could be inputted into the computer. Hanks also had to act with himself, as he played most of the roles in the movie. I know some people find Hanks annoying, but this featurette certainly showcases his considerable talents. This couldn't have been easy.
"A Genuine Ticket to Ride" is a five-part breakdown of the production of the film's effects. Hosted by uber-geek Eddie Deezen (a long-time Robert Zemeckis regular, though he's perhaps best known for having been in 'Grease'), this is an informative if sometimes dry overview. The five categories covered are: Performance Capture," "Virtual Camera," "Hair and Wardrobe," "Creating the North Pole" and "Music."
"True Inspirations" is a 14-minute visit with author Chris Van Allsburg. In addition to 'The Polar Express,' Van Allsburg also penned 'Jumanji' and 'Zathura,' and clearly seems to be a man of great heart and character. After all the technical mumbo-jumbo, I personally found it refreshing to watch something about 'The Polar Express' that is actually about real human beings. Somewhat ironic, no?
Rounding out the extras are some odds and ends. "Josh Groban at the Greek" is a live performance of the film's closing song. "Meet the Snow Angels" is nice featurette that collects various cast and crew reflections on their favorite holiday experiences. Finally, there is also a half-unfinished deleted musical number, "Smokey and the Steamer." A mix of animated footage, storyboards and animatics, the late Michael Jeter sang both of the song's vocal parts, and it's a pretty good tune.
Last but not least, we have an interactive game for the kiddies, "'The Polar Express' Challenge," and the film's theatrical trailer presented in 1080i video and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround.
(Note that with the exception of the trailer, all of the extras listed above are presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only.)
'The Polar Express' tries with every last fiber of its being to be a new perennial holiday classic. I personally found the film to be a bit too emotionally distant to truly succeed at that lofty goal, but kids will love it, and it's certainly visually spectacular. Hitting stores a full year after its HD DVD counterpart, this Blu-ray holds up as a solid release, delivering a strong video transfer and a soundtrack to match.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.