One of the most unintentionally creepy holiday movies ever made, The Polar Express is a victim of its own artistic ambitions. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit), the film was intended to be a leap forward in the evolution of photo-realistic computer animation. Its characters were all created through the motion-capture photography of live actors, whose every movement, expression, or muscle twitch were then painstakingly replicated in their animated counterparts. Indeed, the level of detail in the characters' faces is sometimes remarkable, and in certain shots you'll be amazed by their lifelike appearance. Unfortunately, the problem Zemeckis ran into is that computers still can't capture the human soul. With everything else about them looking so realistic, the characters' glassy eyes and gaping hollow mouths stand out as shockingly devoid of life. The effect is really unsettling. As far as technology has taken us, sometimes it's better if a cartoon just looks like a cartoon and doesn't try to look human.
Adapted from the children's book by Chris Van Allsburg (Jumanji, Zathura), Polar Express tells the story of an average young boy from an average home in an average town. Everything about him is so utterly bland that he's apparently not even worthy of a name (in the credits he's officially called "Hero Boy"). Despite the animated character appearing to be about 13 years-old, we're meant to believe that this is a child only now beginning to lose his faith in Santa Claus and holiday magic. As he settles into bed on Christmas Eve night, fairly certain that his parents will eat the milk and cookies he left out, an incredible racket has him racing outdoors to find, of all things, a magnificent steam locomotive pulling up in front of his house. Somehow the noise doesn't wake up his family or neighbors. The conductor informs him that the train is on its way to the North Pole and he better hop on board quickly if he wants to get there in time to see Santa.
Hero Boy's neglectful parents must not have taught him to avoid rides from strangers (what kind of mixed message is this movie trying to send?). Hop on the train he does, where he meets a group of similar children. Together they have a series of exciting adventures on their way to meet jolly St. Nick and reaffirm their belief in the spirit of Christmas. In other words, it's pretty much the same feel-good message that almost every holiday movie has spoonfed children since motion pictures began. For my money, the original Miracle on 34th Street did it a lot better, but then I was always the type of kid who preferred to watch the darkly subversive A Christmas Story every year.
To give the film some credit, aside from its disturbing use of soulless automatons for characters, The Polar Express is a handsomely animated production rich in detail and a keen sense of atmosphere. Van Allsburg's book is famous for the quality of its evocative illustrations, which are impressively brought to life and motion here. Zemeckis shows off his sizable budget by staging several increasingly elaborate action set-pieces, and the big climax in the heart of the North Pole production factory successfully evokes most of the magical feelings it strives for.
Vocal talent is provided by a diverse cast including such names as Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, and a previously unknown actor by the name of Tom Hanks. Yes, the majority of voices are performed by Hanks, working under the theory that the more characters he performs in a year the better his odds of getting yet another Oscar. The actor tries not to sound too much like himself in each role, largely failing. However, as annoying as this conceit is, at times you almost wish that he did play every character. The nerdy kid in glasses called "Know It All" is voiced by Eddie Deezen (parents will remember him as the geeky Eugene in Grease), delivering what must be the absolute worst adult impersonation of a child that I've ever heard.
Zemeckis pads Van Allsburg's slim 32-page book out to a 100-minute length with a number of manufactured adventure scenes that become silly and repetitive. He has a fondness for vertigo-inducing rollercoaster sequences in which the train speeds uncontrollably up and down hills, mountains, or any other excuse for a steep incline. There's at least three or four of those before the movie's over, and I can't help but feel that they were added solely as a dry run for the tie-in video game. He also introduces some forced slapstick humor featuring acrobatic, physics-defying goofiness that undercuts the production's attempt at photo-realism. Worst of all are the inane musical numbers whose horrid songs feel like they'll never end.
The Polar Express wants to become a magical holiday classic, but at least for this jaded adult falls pretty far short of that goal. The movie has elements worth admiring, almost overwhelmed by the syrupy schmaltz, miscalculated adventures, and the significant technical failing of its character animation. Children may be more forgiving of its weaknesses.
The HD DVD:
The Polar Express debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Warner Home Video.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Polar Express HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame. The disc contains only the standard 2D version of the movie, with no attempt to replicate the IMAX 3D version.
A direct digital-to-digital transfer of an all-CGI production, the disc looks terrific, as you'd expect. The animation is spotlessly clean and free of noise, compression artifacts, or other unwanted blemishes. The movie has some deliberately diffuse and understated visuals, with muted colors in the first half and a subtle glowing sheen about everything. The picture is perhaps not razor sharp like you'll see in an Ice Age or similar production, but it has a nice sense of texture and depth, and is an accurate reproduction of the intended storybook style. Once the action moves to the North Pole, colors really start to pop off the screen. Black levels are a little on the light side throughout, and I found it particularly strange that the end credits play over a milky gray screen, but this is a fine-looking High Definition image.
The Polar Express HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. Volume is set low by default to take advantage of a wide dynamic range, but be careful in adjusting your volume setting. The music and narration that start the movie are delivered in quiet hushed tones, and my first instinct was to crank up the amplification to compensate. However, the train arrival a few minutes later has bass so powerful that I feared all the windows in my room might crack.
The film has a really great sound design, filled with both subtle atmospheric effects in the quiet scenes and plenty of razzle dazzle during the action sequences. Surround activity is skillfully employed to create an immersive audio environment. Sound effects are crisply recorded and delivered; the train whistle is particularly impressive. You'll feel the pounding, thunderous bass is your chest when the train races, but it's cleanly reproduced and never boomy.
Lip sync drifts in and out, but this is probably an artifact of the animation. I wasn't wowed by the musical numbers. Fidelity seems fine but I expect that a lossless Dolby TrueHD track might have offered noticeable improvement.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - N/A.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it). The bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression.
Almost all of the supplements from the DVD have carried over, plus a brief new one. Unfortunately, they don't add up to much worthwhile.
Missing from the DVD are an actual playable demo of the video game and the "Stocking Stuffers" easter egg interview (if it's hidden somewhere here, I didn't spot it). New to the HD DVD is:
- You Look Familiar (4 min.) – Tom Hanks discusses the motion capture process and the difficulties of playing multiple characters.
- True Inspirations: An Author's Adventure (5 min.) – An interview with Chris Van Allsburg about his life and career.
- Behind the Scenes of "Believe" (4 min.) – A look at the wretched theme song being recorded.
- A Genuine Ticket to Ride (13 min.) – A series of six brief segments covering the performance capture process, animation, and design of the film. All are annoyingly narrated by two of the voice actors in character. For some inexplicable reason, although the segments have a "Play All" option the introduction must be played separately.
- Additional Song (7 min.) – Actually a lengthy deleted scene called "Smokey and Steamer" that includes a short song. The piece was never completed and is presented in very rough animation. The song is awful, but the scene does provide backstory for the ghost character who's never properly explained in the film.
- Josh Groban at the Greek (4 min.) – A live performance of that horrible theme song.
- Meet the Snow Angels (3 min.) – Christmas remembrances from the cast and crew.
- THQ Game Demo (30 sec.) – It's called a demo but is really just a commercial for the tie-in video game.
- Theatrical Trailer (1 min.)
- A Flurry of Effects (9 min.) – Five before-and-after segments comparing footage of the actors being photographed for motion capture with the same scenes in the finished film.
The Polar Express tries to be a new holiday classic, but its creepy animated characters gave me shivers, which I'm sure wasn't the intention. The HD DVD does have excellent picture quality and fine sound, at least, though the bonus features don't amount to much. If you have kids, the purchase of this disc is probably unavoidable, but for adult viewers a rental should suffice.
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