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:
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.
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 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:
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.