Background: As Christmas rapidly approaches, so too do the multitude of fables that air yearly so many of us consider "classics". Forget for a moment that if you over analyze these movies, you come across as a heartless monster or raging cynic that has lost touch with your inner child; remember how the movies made you feel before you became of age. That's how such movies are meant to be enjoyed, preferably without the elitist sentiments of people that have wildly different ideas of what constitutes "fun". Such was the case with The Polar Express (Blu-Ray) that won numerous accolades in the last few years, serving up as another holiday fable that most of us "get" while the Scrooges of the world go about their business of humbugging everything they encounter.
Movie: The Polar Express (Blu-Ray) is a story about a mythic train that runs to the North Pole every Christmas Eve, carrying a small group of children to meet with Santa Clause before he jumps in his sleigh to bring presents to the masses of children throughout the world. This year, the train carries a special boy who has lost the faith; believing the empty commercialization of the holiday as being the truth yet not quite able to face his newfound belief given his deep seated need to believe in something greater. The movie details the journey of the train and those aboard it, basing the majority of the story on the children's book by author Chris Van Allsburg, but expanding on the minimalist effort in numerous ways to exploit the medium of choice as best it can. The author's book bares scant resemblance to the finished product here but considering the movie clocks in at around 100 minutes and the book was a fairly thin set of drawings, this is to be expected.
The most notable characters of the movie are the conductor, a hobo hitching a ride, the boy hero, his female counterpart, and a shy lad the two heroes befriend. Tom Hanks plays a great many small roles in the movie but as the majority of male characters, he breathes life into the CGI cast better than a great many experienced voice actors could have. Only Eddie Deezen's "know it all/greedy" brat character seemed able to upstage him a time or two; largely thanks to the role he was cast in as the jerk. Otherwise, Hanks' strengths played well as the compassionate but skeptical boy on a journey of discovery to remember his roots; the child in us all.
As expected, the children get into various forms of mischief along the way but as good kids, their exploits are more in line with situations of them trying to do the right thing and making the best of it than trying to get something selfishly for themselves or put one over on the rest of the cast. This na´ve but pure imagery of the child's mind is in stark contrast to the modernistic approach where anything but bratty kids looking out for #1 is considered "sappy" or "sentimental" but it works as a timeless fable no matter what misgivings I may have had about some of the specifics. Stripping away the gimmicky aspects of the production, it was similar to a lot of fluff on the market too yet transcends the pack by way of the vision so many put into it. Unlike other titles that are meant to be analyzed with a cold, hard look at the specifics, this was the rare time when such a look was unwarranted. Granted, the movie was overlong by about 40 minutes but having watched the SD version when it came out a few times and now this one, I can safely say that the blue ray version merited a rating of Highly Recommended for anyone wanting an interesting Christmas tale that all ages can appreciate.
Picture: The Polar Express (Blu-Ray) was presented in the original 2.4:1 ratio widescreen using the VC-1 codec and a 1080p resolution. The movie was directed by award winning filmmaker Robert Zemeckis who used advanced computer graphics technology to "capture" live action and animate it, providing a visually interesting look to the movie that others have unsuccessfully tried to emulate since it came out. The detail of this Blu-Ray version was even more noticeable than the SD version so many fans have loved, from the individual bolts on the train's cars, to the wrinkles in the conductor's uniform, to the varied snow/dirt stains on the window panes. The faces of the characters displayed a range of emotion in order to tell their individual plights fairly well (pushing the limits of technology a bit) but as with the rest of the visual treatment of this children's book come to life, the BR version enhanced the experience. It occurred to me that the use of brighter lighting effects and the rare softened scenes were done in such a way to underscore the thematic "lessons" of the story too; perhaps as another means to show how the story is promoting a child's distinctive manner of black/white in conjunction with the story elements. In all, the movie was a unique looking event of a show with the high definition adding to the value of the experience.
Sound: There was surprisingly only one audio version of the movie on the disc, a 5.1 Dolby Digital+ offering in English (with optional subtitles in English, French and Spanish on the movie itself). The dynamic range was substantial, the audio elements supporting the visual characteristics nicely, the 16 bit/48 KHz track clocking in at 640 Kbps. It might not have been the best such track possible but the directionality of the effects, the blending of the score into the vocals, and the overall experience of the sound being very well done indeed. The bass was loud and used extensively in conjunction with the locomotive and other aspects of the movie but some of the character's mouths did not quite move as naturally as others; perhaps an extension of the CGI issues pushing the envelop so much. Still, it compared nicely to the SD version and enhanced the movie beyond what was expected.
Extras: With so many of the newer high definition titles getting short changed in the extras department, it was great to see the wealth of goodies offered up here, albeit in lackluster (by comparison) SD. Most of them were short in length but served up the same kind of holiday spirit the movie was designed to invoke. One of the best was the feature A Flurry of Effects as it used five motion capture sessions to detail the making of the movie. It lasted under ten minutes but still managed to give some insight as to the difficulty of the way the movie was made. This was similar in some ways to the You Look Familiar feature by Tom Hanks that showed the actor discussing the topic at length in regards to his own contribution for the movie and the lengthier A Genuine Ticket To Ride that added some layers of information to the making of the movie. There was also a trailer for the movie, a short clip of the author giving his head's up of past Christmas experiences (and a separate one of other cast/crew doing likewise), the making of the theme song (and a separate clip of popular singer Josh Groban singing it live), a deleted scene called Smokey and the Steamer that had another song in it (though not as good as the theme song; the clip far from finished too), and a short game demonstration from the less-than-inspiring videogame in circulation.
Final Thoughts: The Polar Express (Blu-Ray) might not be replacing Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, or A Wonderful Life for top holiday billing any time soon but it was much better than many critics suggested, our own Holly Ordway leading the pack of those who understood what the movie was trying to be and judging it accordingly. The idea of a steam train heading to the North Pole each year is as fanciful as a man in a red suit flying a sleigh of reindeer with a sack of toys to hand out and while it might not make a believer out of all of you, it certainly inspires the same kind of movie magic wondering of the timeless classics most of us appreciate. In short, The Polar Express (Blu-Ray) might help you "hear the sleigh bell" or you might fluff it off as a crass attempt to make a movie for the family devoid of swearing, unneeded violence, and all the crud some feel needs to be in a movie to give it street credibility; the many morals of the tale speak for themselves and you could do far worse in coming weeks to showcase your high definition entertainment equipment so give it a look.