In 10 Words or Less
Get a little Tom Hanks in your face
Loves: Animation, winter, Christmastime
Likes: Classic storybooks
Dislikes: Red & blue 3D
Hates: Not getting extras
The Story So Far...
The Polar Express, a relatively well-known holiday children's book, was adapted into a computer-generated animated film under the direction of Robert Zemekis, with a technique using motion capture as the basis for the characters. The film has had a few versions released on DVD, and DVDTalk has two reviews of one of the previous sets: Holly Ordway | Aaron Beierle
I can't say I knew anything about Chris Van Allburg's brief Christmas children's book before Robert Zemekis made it the basis for his new style of computer animation, and I admit I still haven't read it (or Jumanji for that matter.) I do know my mother-in-law would read it to her classes, so that's got to count for something. Either way, the guy had to have done something right to keep his 32-page book on kids' shelves for over 20 years.
What's certain is the book served mainly as an outline and inspiration for the film, as even with the most languid pacing, 32 pages will not stretch to fill 100 minutes. Thus, you get the story of a young boy on the verge of losing his belief in Santa Claus, only to find himself on a train to the North Pole to meet the man himself. The trip is far more eventful than it should be, as the young fellow gets into any trouble available, before eventually returning home with a sentimental lesson to live by.
It's amazing how little story there actually is in here, amazing to the point that in writing that last paragraph, I had to go over my notes a few times to make sure I wasn't accidentally omitting any important details in the plot. Normally, when an animated feature has such a meager plot, it fills the gaps in the runtime of a respectable feature film with musical numbers that have a tenuous resemblance to plot advancement. Here, instead of following the well-worn path, we get something more appropriate for a Zemekis film, which is a bunch of thrill-ride moments. These are actually more plot-appropriate than any musical number, since the kids on the Polar Express actually have someplace to go, and these scenes just make that trip more exciting.
The first film by Zemekis done via motion capture, The Polar Express is an interesting experiment, because computer-animating realistic humans has always been the holy grail of the animation industry, because the difficulty of capturing the complexity of human movement has always been well above the capabilities of the techniques and technology that have been available. But capturing the acting of Tom Hanks (who plays several roles) and the rest of the cast on computer and building the animation around it took one step closer to realistic human animation. Despite that, the movement of the bodies is still a bit too stiff, and the faces are still far too plastic, looking closer to mannequins than people. Oddly, these defects kind of work for this film, which has a look akin to the art of a storybook, helping convey the fantasy feel of the tale.
The only thing that doesn't work, despite being a moderately entertaining segment, is the film's one musical number, "Hot Chocolate." It's catchy enough, and a well-animated bit of choreography, but it stands out dramatically, in an otherwise singing-free affair. That's part of the appeal of the movie, as it blends the heart-felt sentimentality you want from a Christmas film, with the high-energy adrenaline of an action movie to keep everyone entertained. As a result, you can feel confident putting this film on at Christmastime without clearing out the room, which is all anyone wants (if they want the family to be together, that is.)
Inside a slipcover with a nice lenticular 3-D version of the cover art, there's a standard-width keepcase with a tray, holding the two DVDs and four pairs of old-school red-and-blue 3-D glasses. The 3-D disc features a static, anamorphic widescreen (non-3-D) menu, with options to watch the film, select scenes, check out trailers and adjust the set-up. Audio options include English, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, while subtitles are available in English SDH, French and Spanish. There's no closed captioning.
It's hard to judge the quality of a 3-D film, mainly because it seems to rely so much on who's watching and what conditions you're watching in. The 3-D effects in this film, on a whole, are decently delivered, but not of the "hey look at this" variety, while the consistency of the image leaves something to be desired. Part of the problem seems to be the color scheme, as colder scenes, those displayed mainly in blue, look amazing (the roller-coaster train portion of the film is outstanding, for example.) Other scenes, like the North Pole scenes, are rather bleh, with the layers of color sitting far too separate, resulting in a fuzzy image. Either way, it was hard to sit through the entire film this way, as visions of headaches danced in my eyes. The payoff simply wasn't great enough to justify the strain. The film uses the same brilliant movie at it's core, of course, so there are no issues with dirt, damage or compression artifacts (of course, they might just be camouflaged by the 3-D.)
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, on the other hand, delivering the same presentation as the original release, is fantastic, utilizing the full sound-field in the room to really sell the story. When the Polar Express first arrives, it's like standing at the station, thanks to a bold, enveloping mix that's strong and clear. The same kudos can be applied to the less obvious dialogue and sound effects, as well as the touching score, which really just epitomizes what a sweet, traditional Christmas should sound like.
We have apparently been naughty this year, as Santa Warner has basically put coal in our DVD stocking, leaving us only a few trailers (including one for The Polar Express) on the 3-D disc, and tossing in the first disc of the original two-disc set (as indicated by the Disc 1 label and 2004 copyright.) That means we get an animated main menu, along with the same theatrical trailer for the movie (two for the price of one), and the standard, unblurry version of the film, thankfully in anamorphic widescreen. Warner Brothers obviously realized the novelty of getting a headache at Christmas would wear off relatively quick.
The Bottom Line
The Polar Express is a fine little Christmas chestnut that will hold up to many viewings and won't annoy a soul in the room, but it's missing that certain something that makes for a holiday classic, likely due to the need to expand a slim story to feature length with any number of action sequences. Sadly, like so many applications of the technology, the 3-D version doesn't really enhance the movie much, thanks mostly to a headache inducing blur in many scenes and the ineffectiveness of the glasses, still, decades after they first arrived. If you already own the two-disc set of this film, keep that, because you get no extras here and not much bang, but if you can get this cheap and don't carry about bonus material, it's a fine version overall.