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, I somehow 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.
Following the standard 2-D Blu-ray release of 'The Polar Express' by a year (which itself followed the original HD DVD version by a year), Warner now brings us 'The Polar Express Presented in 3-D.' Packed onto a BD-50 dual-layer disc, we get the re-encoded 2-D version of the film previously released, and a red/blue anaglyph 3-D version. Both are framed at 2.40:1, and presented in 1080p/VC-1 video. (Four pairs of anaglyph 3-D glasses are included in the Blu-ray keepcase.)
Given the irritant of watching a nearly two-hour flick entirely through a red/blue prism, I find critiquing the video quality of anaglyph 3-D presentations rather useless. The dimensional effect, however, is quite good. As I found with Warner's fellow 3-D release, 'Journey to the Center of the Earth,' the illusion is most realistic in the middle plane of the image. The separation of images is pronounced and effective. Only extreme background and foreground images tend to flatten out a bit. I also noticed a slight loss in focus/softness as objects threatened to reach out to the very tip of my nose. Although I continue to wish there was some way to offer true full-color 3-D on Blu-ray discs without the need for fancy equipment, 'The Polar Express' is among the better anaglyph 3-D presentations I've seen on the format.
The 2-D version is identical to the previous Blu-ray and HD DVD versions. 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 pieces of clothing, such as the felt and fur of Santa's suit, are amazingly lifelike and realistic.
If I have any hesitation in giving the 2-D version 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.
Warner has improved upon the original HD DVD and Blu-ray releases of 'The Polar Express' by giving us a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround mix (48kHz/16-bit, and available on both the 2-D and 3-D versions). The uptick is not incredibly substantial in all areas, but notable in enough of them to make this the superior presentation.
The rear channels did not display an immediate improvement, though they remain impressively full with subtle and discrete sounds. Surrounds are lifelike and immersive with the various train sounds, 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 even more seamless, and I felt surrounded by a near wall-of-sound.
Dynamic range and low-bass extension are the main beneficiaries of the TrueHD mix, with the chugging of the train a particular highlight and the crash sequence about midway through quite a stunner. Likewise, Alan Silvestri's score is strong and supple, filling out the front speakers to great effect. Dialogue is always front and center in the mix, and I never once had to do any volume adjustments to compensate. 'The Polar Express' already sounded good in standard Dolby Digital, and it's now just a little bit better in TrueHD.
No big surprises here. Warner includes almost all of the same extras as the previous Blu-ray, which itself was a port of the old standard-def and HD DVD disc releases. It's a decent package, but nothing special. (Missing here is a single feature from the previous Blu-ray, "The Polar Express Challenge" interactive game.) Video materials are presented 480i/MPEG-2 video, with optional English, French and Dutch subtitles.
'The Polar Express' tries with every last fiber of its being to be a new perennial holiday classic. I found the film to be a bit too emotionally distant to truly succeed at that lofty goal, but it's visually spectacular and no doubt kids will love it. This new Blu-ray version improves upon the previous edition by offering not only a 3-D version but a Dolby TrueHD track, too. Combined with nice 2-D video and some decent extras, this new 'Polar Express' Blu-ray is well worth riding a second time.
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.