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.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video brings this 3D Blu-ray edition of 'The Polar Express' on a Region Free, BD50 disc and includes a 2D version of the film, which can be accessed through the main menu. The disc is housed in the normal blue keepcase with a lenticular slipcover. Once in the player, viewers are taken directly to the main menu with a still picture and music playing in the background.
Since the beginning of the format wars, it seems Warner Home Video has released 'The Polar Express' once every year at around the time of the holidays, except for 2009. It wasn't until the following year the studio re-released it again, taking advantage of Blu-ray's capability to store 3D content in full 1080p video. Compared to its anaglyph counterpart of 2008, this MVC encode is the clear winner and the preferred way to enjoy this animated film, primarily because we don't have to deal with watching through red and blue glasses.
Framed in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the digital-to-digital transfer remains impeccable and identical to how filmmakers intended it to be seen. The image comes with a slightly blurry effect meant to make the entire film seem a bit dreamy and somewhat antiquated. This in turn affects fine object detailing, making much of the picture softer than would be expected of a carefully-designed animated feature. Still, the movie offers excellent clarity and definition, exposing many small blemishes and tiny characteristics around the interior of the train and the architecture of Santa's village. The color palette is richly saturated and vivid with a strong emphasis on secondary hues, giving it a lovely and appealing sense of warmth. Contrast, however, is slightly dimmer than before due to the tinted glasses, but brightness remains superb with true, rich blacks.
So, while the 2-D version of the movie appears identical to previous releases, the 3D presentation is a step-up in quality. Despite the photography's generally soft-focus appeal, the picture displays a wonderful depth of field with terrific differentiation of background objects from the foreground. Unfortunately, this isn't always consistent with a few sequences looking a bit flatter than others and overall dimensionality doesn't quite compare to newer 3D movies. Nevertheless, the video offers a great sense of space and distance with minimal crosstalk or any other annoying artifacts. Best moments are during the rollercoaster-like segments, the ticket flying through the wind and Santa's grand entrance at the center of the village. Several gimmick shots also add a nice touch and make the transfer a fantastic, festive joy for the holiday season.
For this 3D Blu-ray edition of 'Polar Express,' Warner offers an outstanding DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, making the film's overall design a sensational listen in high-def. Comparatively, this new codec is identical to the Dolby TrueHD track found on the anaglyph 3-D release from a couple years ago.
The lossless mix's most impressive moments come from the front soundstage. During the movie's few action sequences, listeners are engulfed with a wall of sound as minor atmospherics fill the air with convincing clarity. Dynamic range is extraordinary and sharply detailed with distinct separation of every individual hum, thud and loud crash filling the entire room. The low-end provides a thunderous and commanding presence with fierce intensity and incisive responsiveness. Vocals are precise and intelligible throughout, never drowned by any of the film's more boisterous sequences.
Rear activity delivers various subtle discrete effects which are quite effective and immersive with splendid directionality. Alan Silvestri's musical score also spreads into the back with an understated movement that satisfyingly enhances the soundfield and makes this a marvelous high-rez track for the holidays.
Warner ports over the same set of supplements seen previously, except for the interactive videogame, and presented in 2D standard definition.
Based on the popular children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, 'The Polar Express' is the holiday animated feature that broke new ground in the digital visual effects arena. Starring Tom Hanks performing a majority of the roles, the movie is an enjoyable holiday treat about a kid rediscovering his faith in jolly 'ole St. Nick. This 3D Blu-ray edition of the animated film comes with a great picture quality and even better audio, but supplements remain the same as in previous releases. In the end, the presentation makes a wonderful addition to enjoy with family this festive season and comes recommended.