When the closing credits roll and you think "I want to watch that movie again!" you know you've just seen something special. That's the case with The Polar Express: it's a polished little gem of a film that tells its story exactly right and leaves you feeling charmed and delighted... just like the protagonist, the little boy who falls asleep on Christmas Eve wondering if Santa Claus really exists, only to be woken up by the thunderous arrival of the Polar Express to take him on a trip to the North Pole to meet the great man himself.
One of the delightful things about The Polar Express is its strong thematic connection to the work of Roald Dahl, both his books (like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and the film versions of them. There's the same premise of a child suddenly thrust into a strange, magical, slightly surreal world that's controlled by adults; there's the tone of wonder mixed with a slight tinge of fear; there's the fascination with crazy mechanical gadgets and elaborate constructions. What works so well about The Polar Express is that it captures that Dahl feel but makes the story its own: the echoes that we hear of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are positive ones, in the sense that The Polar Express is evoking the same wonder and thrills that Dahl's story did. (There are also some touches that I'm sure are homages to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, like the "golden ticket"; these are handled perfectly, in that they are entirely natural and necessary in the context of the story, but also make an extra connection in the mind of the adult viewer.)
Visually, The Polar Express is a treat. Here we can see computer graphics coming to maturity in film; the technology is used here to create a picture-book world with a soft, magical feel to it that not only is faithful to the look of the original picture book by Chris Van Allsburg, but is also perfectly matched to the tone of the film. Technology also makes it possible to create some simply amazing shots, and entire scenes, that would have been impossible otherwise. The "dancing waiters" sequence is eye-poppingly clever and engaging, for instance, but then again, the entire film is filled with one scene after another that offers breathtaking images and amazing visual flights of fancy (sometimes literally so).
The story seems to be a fairly linear one, but only in retrospect. As the film develops, there are constantly hints that the story could go in this, that, or another direction, so we never really know what to expect next... and as a result, we're in exactly the right mindset to be open to whatever wonderful or delightful surprise is around the next corner. In terms of the story arc, the journey is the destination: except for the scene at the heart of the film, the child characters are always moving forward literally as well as figuratively. That's no coincidence; the film takes on the metaphor of life as a journey so completely that it ceases to be a metaphor and becomes a magical reality. There's a sense that the train ride for the characters is exactly as long as it needs to be, and that the figures of the conductor and the hobo are much more powerful than they seem to be at first glance.
One of the hardest things for a fantasy-flavored film or story to do is to retain its atmosphere of awe and magic even after the characters have interacted with the magical world and plumbed its secrets, so the fact that The Polar Express never sheds that atmosphere is very impressive indeed. For one thing, The Polar Express leaves some aspects of the story mysterious, never explaining who or what the hobo is; the result is that the train (and the experience as a whole) retains its magical aura even at the very end of the film. There's also the brilliant choice of never telling us the names of the characters. I've always held that one mark of a good film is that you don't need to remember names to fully engage with the story, and The Polar Express meets that standard completely, as all of the characters (except for Santa) are kept nameless in a totally natural manner: there's never any moment during the film in which we would need to know their names. It's an indication of polished storytelling, but it's also something more. By keeping the child characters without names, especially the protagonist, The Polar Express underlines the idea that this is a magical experience that could happen to any child, anywhere, at any time. The boy protagonist has his own personality, to be sure, but it's kept low-key enough that he can be an Everyboy, for any viewer (adult or child) to imagine as himself or herself.
Another key ingredient here is the length of the film. At just over an hour and a half, The Polar Express is exactly the right length. It's long enough to develop its story and get the viewer completely drawn into its world, but it knows when to stop: it's far better to end with the viewer still caught up in the story rather than dragging on even a few minutes too long. The only place where the story sags even the slightest is in the second musical number, with the shy boy singing along with the girl; the tone doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the film, and the scene feels slightly out of place. Fortunately, it's just one short scene, and the rhythm of the film picks up again without a hitch after that. One of the best indications of the film's excellent pacing is in the ending, which manages to deliver a satisfying conclusion without letting the film run even a moment too long.
In the end, it's impossible to point to any one thing and say "This is what makes The Polar Express a great film." It's the whole package, the way that everything fits together, and on top of it all, the sense that this is a fresh and imaginative story. Christmas-themed films are a dime a dozen, so it takes something really special to come out on top. The Polar Express picks up the time-honored (and time-worn) theme of the magic of Christmas and takes it in a new direction, infusing traditional elements with a dynamic new life. It's a cliché by now that everything is fresh and new when seen through the eyes of a child; The Polar Express is one of the few films that not only gives us a child protagonist, but also captures that sense of wonder for the adult viewer. Perhaps that's the final touch that makes The Polar Express a great film: it's one that will be enjoyed by children, once they've gotten old enough to appreciate it, but fundamentally this is a film for adults to enjoy, with all its depth, texture, and finely crafted magic.
The Polar Express: Two-Disc Widescreen Edition is, as its name points out, a two-disc set. The film appears on the first disc, while the special features are on the second.
The transfer of The Polar Express looks extremely good. It's presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and is anamorphically enhanced.
Colors and contrast are perfect, with warm, bright, or dark tones as needed in any particular scene, and excellent use of light and shadow to create an interesting atmosphere. As we'd expect, the print is absolutely clean, and the overall visual impression is a highly pleasant one. The only flaw I noticed was a very slight bit of artifacting in the occasional long-distance shot, but overall The Polar Express has a solid and nicely handled transfer.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack for The Polar Express is outstanding. For one thing, it's one of the best 5.1 tracks I've heard with respect to its use of the subwoofer: when the Polar Express roars up, you don't just hear it, you feel its bass rumble right down in your bones. All of the train-related sounds are handled perfectly, in fact, giving the Express a feeling of solidity and depth that adds a lot to the overall viewing experience. The rest of the track is also up to the challenge: the dialogue is always crisp and clean, the music has a rich, full sound and is balanced well with the other elements of the track, and the other sound effects are nicely done as well.
A French 5.1 (dubbed in Quebec) and Spanish 5.1 track are also provided.
I am compelled to note that the menus for The Polar Express are highly annoying, as they are extremely lengthy and unskippable. I did discover later that when the anti-piracy screen is playing, if you press "menu" repeatedly you'll finally jump to the static menu screen.
Disc 1 contains the movie and its trailer. The rest of the bonus material is on Disc 2. There's nothing outstanding here, but there are some short features that are reasonably interesting. "You Look Familiar" is a 4-minute piece going through all the different roles that Hanks plays in the film, with clips of him doing the "performance capture" that would be used to create the animated characters. "A Genuine Ticket to Ride" starts with a 2-minute introduction before arriving at a menu of short featurettes (there's a "play all" feature, which is convenient since the total is only about 11 minutes). The content here is interesting, as it touches on the "performance capture," the virtual camera, hair and wardrobe, creating the North Pole, and the music. Next up is "True Inspirations: An Author's Adventure" (5 minutes), which gives some background on Chris Van Allsburg, whose picture book is what the film is based on. "Meet the Snow Angels" (3 minutes) has various people involved with the film, such as Hanks and Zemeckis, reminiscing about their favorite Christmas memories.
On the topic of music, there's a 4-minute performance of the song "Believe" by Josh Groban, and a 4-minute "Behind the Scenes of 'Believe'" piece. The last substantial special feature is an additional song, presented in rough cut format and running about 7 minutes.
The last and most minor special features include a mini-game in which you steer the train (no big thrills there) and a trailer for the upcoming Polar Express computer game.
When I sat down to watch The Polar Express, about all I knew was that it used some great computer graphics, and that most of the voices were done by the talented Tom Hanks. Considering that the film is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who has a history of making unique, unexpectedly great films, I should have known something good was coming. As it was, The Polar Express was a complete (and delightful) surprise, a polished gem of a film that is already on my list of films to watch again soon. On a technical level, the release looks great and sounds fantastic. This is definitely a disc that deserves the DVDTalk Collector Series rating.