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DVD Reviews

HTF REVIEW: The Polar Express - Two Disc Widescreen Edition (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED).

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#1 of 84 OFFLINE   Herb Kane

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Posted November 19 2005 - 01:07 PM

The Polar Express
Two-Disc Widescreen Edition

Studio: Warner Brothers
Year: 2004
Rated: G
Film Length: 100 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Enhanced Widescreen
Audio: DD 5.1
Color/B&W: Color
Languages: English, French & Spanish
Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
MSRP: $29.95
Package: 2 discs in a regular/hinged double Amaray.

The Feature:
The Polar Express is cinematic magic - a delightful and charming tale guaranteed to captivate viewers of all ages. For children, this is a glorious adventure, full of excitement, splendor, and plenty of holiday good cheer. For adults, there are deeper meanings to be found, not to mention the bittersweet nostalgia of gazing back through the years to the point where innocence gave way to the curse of maturity. This, is the very essence of the film.

The story begins on Christmas Eve, with a boy who is unable to sleep. He's listening for sleigh bells and he wants to believe in Santa Claus, but his growing sense of logic tells him the annual ride is impossible. But, instead of hearing the prancing and pawing of each little hoof, he is jarred to full wakefulness by the noise of a train coming to a halt just outside of his house.

"All aboard!" calls the conductor. "Where are you going?" asks the boy. "Why, the North Pole, of course! This is The Polar Express."

Thus begins the boy's journey. On board the train, he meets three of the other passengers: a know-it-all, a shy boy, and an outgoing girl who sometimes doubts herself. Later, the boy will meet a mysterious hobo and the engineers running the train. The conductor is always around, occasionally seeming more officious than helpful. And the journey sometimes turns into more of a roller coaster than a simple train ride - literally.

The film is based on the illustrated childrens’ book by Chris Van Allsburg. Because the source material is so short, screenwriters Robert Zemeckis (who also directed) and William Broyles Jr. opened things up a little, developing personalities for three of the background characters, and adding some action/adventure sequences. Despite the changes, however, the movie successfully captures the spirit of the book, and it is likely that fans of one will appreciate the other.

It should come as no surprise that The Polar Express is a visual treat. The details are astonishing and the lifelike movement of the human beings helps us to forget that they don't look quite real. There are some amazingly rich and varied scenes, such as one in which a ticket makes a round-trip journey that includes an encounter with an eagle and a few other obstacles – a scene that no doubt fans will find reminiscent of the feather sequence at the opening of Forrest Gump - another Zemeckis film. When hot chocolate is served, we get a spectacular song-and-dance number which seems a rather odd fit and is oddly placed – but it certainly does grow on you. There are also moments of high adventure, such as a sequence where the brakes fail as the train is racing along tracks that mimic a roller coaster, and an out-of-control dash across a collapsing frozen lake. Then, of course, there's the arrival at the North Pole, where the elves treat Santa Claus like the ultimate rock star.

Most of the character roles are played by Tom Hanks, although only in one performance does he look like himself. Hanks has six parts: the conductor, the boy, the boy's father, the mysterious hobo, a Scrooge puppet, and Santa Claus. Children who notice probably won't care. Other vocal performers include Michael Jeter (in his final screen appearance before his death and to whom the film is dedicated) as the two engineers, Nona Gaye (who, by the way is Marvin Gaye’s daughter) as the girl, Peter Scolari as the lonely boy, and Eddie Deezen as the know-it-all kid – man, that kid is annoying.

The Feature: 4.5/5

Presented in its correct aspect ratio of 2.35:1 this is a terrific looking transfer that is indeed, enhanced for widescreen TV’s. From a technical standpoint, The Polar Express is a masterpiece. It is the first movie to use motion capture for its entire length. For motion capture, an actor wears a special suit containing dozens of sensors that relay details of his movement to a computer while he performs in front of a blue screen. This permits a computer to develop a virtual, three-dimensional image of the actor that can then be manipulated by the animators. The result allows the characters to appear much like real human beings while still retaining a slightly, albeit waxy and sometimes creepy "animated" look – really, my only complaint of the end result.

This mixture of live action and computer animation is a powerful tool that has allowed Zemeckis to devise a world unlike anything we have seen on screen before, yet populate it with real looking people. In addition, The Polar Express was designed with 3D IMAX theaters in mind (it is the first feature-length movie to feature the IMAX three-dimensional process). However, since most viewers will see it in a conventional theater, Zemeckis made sure that the use of traditional projectors didn't result in a drop-off in quality.

That said, there is an impressive amount of detail to be seen here. All facets of the image are sharp and well defined. Colors are vibrant and nicely saturated. Skin tones have a rather pasty look to them, but to be fair, this was identical to my theatrical experience. Blacks were rich and deep and whites were always clean and crisp.

There is virtually no grain to speak of and the image, as we would expect for such a newly released film is absolutely immaculate and free of any blemishes or marks. The authoring seems to have been handled to perfection as compression errors were basically non existent as were any signs of edge enhancement.

I’m always a little reluctant to dole out full marks but I just couldn’t find anything to complain about – a perfect job.

Video: 5/5

The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and for the most part is almost as impressive as its video counterpart. There’s nothing like a train to show off the dynamics on one’s home theater – well, there’s plenty of it here, folks.

There are some great examples of oomph and heft as the locomotive pulls up and rumbles through the rest of the journey. Your subwoofer will be put to good use and will see lots of action. Surrounds were also employed effectively and to great extent – always tactfully however, and never sounding gimmicky.

Dialogue was always crystal clear and intelligible. Even during the musical sequences, everything remained clear and the track never became thin or fatiguing. Although a slightly wider soundstage would have made this almost perfect track, perfect. The track remains natural throughout and is perfectly clean and free of any other noisy distractions.

The soundtrack is also very adept at showing off the finer details of the film i.e. bells, the snapping of cloth, the clanging of toys, the cracking of ice etc. Fine detail is well represented here.

Overall, a very nice job.

Audio: 4.5/5

Special Features:
The second disc contains the majority of special features as the set looks like this:

Disc One:
[*] The Theatrical Trailer is the lone feature on disc one and runs a mere 1:02 minutes. Surprisingly, no commentary appears within the set.

Disc Two:
[*] The First feature on this disc is You Look Familiar which contains a number of movie clips and behind the scenes footage. Director-writer-producer Robert Zemeckis, actor and executive producer Tom Hanks and producer Steve Starkey offer their comments throughout this featurette. An interesting piece but it ends before we have any time sink our teeth into it. Duration: 4:11 minutes.
[*] A Genuine Ticket To Ride starts with an introduction that lasts 1:48 minutes. The feature is broken into five individual segments starting with:
- Performance Capture
- Virtual Camera
- Hair and Wardrobe
- Creating the North Pole
- Music
This is a feature that focuses mostly on the technical aspects of the film with each specializing in the named segment. Eventually we hear from Robert Zemeckis, Tom Hanks, visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston, music composer Alan Silvestri, songwriter Glen Ballard, Josh Groban, and author-executive producer Chris Van Allsburg. Considering the technical orientation of the film and 5 rather complex aspects you’ll be surprised to learn that the entire duration of this feature is only 11:27 minutes. This is hardly enough time to spend on such issues. This could have – and should have been the crown jewel of the features. Clearly, this is formatted for the little ones – and shouldn’t have been.
[*] Next up is, True Inspirations: An Author’s Adventure which focuses on the original author, Van Allsburg. The author discusses his childhood as well as interest in writing. The feature is formatted in a storybook manner showing many family photographs. He also talks about the book including his inspiration for writing it and his interest in art. Interesting and brief. Duration: 5:29 minutes.
[*] A performance by Josh Groban At The Greek is included where the young performer sings the song from the film, “Believe”. Talk about a guy who doesn’t look like he sounds – what a voice! An outstanding performance of the popular song, which sounds terrific in the HT. Duration: 4:43 minutes.
[*] In Behind The Scenes of Believe we hear from Groban once again as well as Glen Ballard as they discuss the song’s creation and its recording including the actual session. Interesting and again, brief. Duration: 4:24 minutes.
[*] Next up is a kid’s game entitled, Polar Express Challenge. The game seems rather geared for the youngest of fans and I didn’t spend much time with it.
[*] Meet The Snow Angels includes tidbits from Tom Hanks, Robert Zemeckis, Nona Gaye as well as other cast & crew members as they discuss their favorite holiday moments. Duration: 2:44 minutes.
[*] The next feature is entitled THQ Game Demo which is another game for the kids although, admittedly, I didn’t spend much time with it.
[*] The final feature is an Additional Song that was cut which Michael Jeter is clearly the focus of here playing both characters. The name is rather misleading as the song is only a fraction of the actual cut scene. The Executive Producer, Jack Rapke makes an appearance here as he introduces the clip and offers it as a sort of dedication to the late actor who died during the film’s production. Great to see, but I can surely see why it was cut. The clip appears in its raw form as it was never finished. Duration: 7:02 minutes.

And finally, on the first Features menu, it states, “if you truly believe, find all 5 stocking stuffers”…. So one would assume you have a few Easter Eggs to hunt for during the Christmas Season – I’ll leave those to you.

I’ve come to not expect much from the special features, particularly from newer releases and really, this is no exception. However, at least in this case, there’s a little something for everyone.

Special Features: 3/5

**Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**

Final Thoughts:
I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that after I saw the film last year theatrically, I was a bit creeped out. I don’t know if it was the waxy-corpse-like looking characters, the bizarre and oddly placed “hot chocolate refreshment routine” or the even weirder Hitler-youth-like gathering rally at the end of the film. But I can tell you this; my initial impressions have changed drastically over this past week with multiple viewings and the film has become a fan-favorite among the little ones in the house as they patiently await the big day.

In fact, my feelings have warmed up to a point that I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call The Polar Express one of the best family Christmas films to come out of Hollywood for some time and, there's no question that Express is destined to become a Christmas cinematic classic. It has been a long time since there has been a family holiday movie that is this strong. The film exudes an endearing charm and drives home the magical message especially for those young ones on the cusp.

The disc represents my theatrical experience to a tee, so no complaints from these quarters. The A/V presentation is every bit and then some, of what we’ve come to expect from a big budget modern release. The special features are a mixed bag, if not just slightly underwhelming, but there’s something here for everyone. If you’re in search of a charming new holiday film for the entire family, look no further than The Polar Express – it’ll be arriving shortly.

All abooooaaaarrrrrd…!

Overall Rating: 4.5/5 (not an average)

Highly Recommended…!!

Release Date: November 22nd, 2005
My Top 25 Noirs:

25. 711 Ocean Drive (1950), 24. Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), 23. Desperate (1947), 22. Pushover (1954), 21. The Blue Dahlia (1946), 20. The File on Thelma Jordon (1949), 19. He Ran All the Way (1951), 18. The Asphalt Jungle (1950), 17. The Killing (1956), 16. I Walk Alone (1948),...

#2 of 84 OFFLINE   Mark Lucas

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Posted November 19 2005 - 01:15 PM

I think I'll wait for the HD version which will really reveal the subtle animation and detailed snowflakes.

#3 of 84 OFFLINE   Mike Frezon

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Posted November 19 2005 - 01:47 PM

Thanks, Herb! You must have been really busy this past week! Posted Image

This is one we missed, last year, at the theater! Don't know how we missed it...but we did!

We've been waiting not-so-patiently for the DVD release and are thrilled to read such positive reviews. The book has been a longtime favorite at our house and I am intrigued to see what this film looks like visually...and how you make a 100-minute movie successfully from a thin children's picture book.

Between Kong, the Polar Express and Leave it To Beaver this week...this is quite a week indeed! Posted Image

There's Jessie the yodeling cowgirl. Bullseye, he's Woody's horse. Pete the old prospector. And, Woody, the man himself.Of course, it's time for Woody's RoundUp. He's the very best! He's the rootinest, tootinest cowboy in the wild, wild west!

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#4 of 84 OFFLINE   Bill Thomann

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Posted November 19 2005 - 01:52 PM

Thanks for the great review. I'll be buying it first thing Tuesday morning along with the 2 disc WOTW. In a little over 2 hours (after reading Mike's Weekly Roundup) I'll know where I'll be getting them.

#5 of 84 OFFLINE   Andrew Radke

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Posted November 19 2005 - 03:14 PM

Thanks very much for the review. I saw this theatrically, but hardly at its full potential. I caught it at a discount theater here in town. Needless to say, both image and sound quality were way below par, considering the equipment used at that particular theater. Despite the limitations of the hardware, I found this to be an amazing movie. I literally couldn't take my eyes off of it. I saw this in early January, well after Christmas had ended. Needless to say, I had goosebumps. Now I can't wait to watch this on my home theater system. For the first time, I'll be able to enjoy the film in its full potential. I really can't wait. This is one film that will definitely be viewed in my home every holiday season.
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#6 of 84 OFFLINE   CraigF



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Posted November 19 2005 - 03:23 PM

Interesting. I have (intentionally) overlooked this film as "typical Christmas fodder", but I am definitely rethinking my position thanks to your review...

#7 of 84 OFFLINE   Colin Jacobson

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Posted November 19 2005 - 04:07 PM

Don't wanna be bitchy, but I have to dispute this statement. LOTS of people find this to be a creepy movie - myself included. I get the sense it's much more polarizing than this statement would make us think - some people love it, others really hate it...
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#8 of 84 OFFLINE   george kaplan

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Posted November 19 2005 - 04:21 PM

I think it depends on your definition of LOTS. I have heard some comments like that here, but of all the people I've ever talked to in person who saw this film, not one ever said it was creepy or hated it (some didn't care for it, but no one I've talked to said they hated it).
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#9 of 84 OFFLINE   StevenFC


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Posted November 19 2005 - 05:38 PM

This film should look great in 3D.
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#10 of 84 OFFLINE   Craig S

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Posted November 19 2005 - 05:48 PM

Thanks for the review, Herb. I'll be picking this one up. But, I have to say...

If you did not see this in IMAX 3-D last year - make EVERY effort possible to catch it in that format during its re-release to those venues this year. This film is a stunning, immersive experience when seen on the IMAX screen. This is not your father's cheesy 3-D. To quote Roger Ebert from his review of TPE last year:

I'll be going back this year to see it again in 3-D. Once again, if you live anywhere near an IMAX 3-D screen playing this, make a screening part of your family's holiday plans. Every film fan NEEDS to see TPE in the format for which it was designed.

Oh, FWIW... I loved the "Hot Chocolate" sequence. But I'm weird ... Posted Image
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#11 of 84 OFFLINE   ScottR



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Posted November 19 2005 - 07:39 PM

Ok guys....I own almost every Christmas movie ever made, all of the Rankin/Bass specials (on vhs and dvd), many other tv classics, and then some. The Polar Express is one of the most magical, best holiday films I have ever seen. Perfect to watch by the warm lights of your Christmas tree with a cup of hot cocoa, while cuddled up in a warm blanket...perfect!

#12 of 84 OFFLINE   Paul Hillenbrand

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Posted November 20 2005 - 12:42 AM

Thanks Herb for the review.

First saw this at the cinema and then at the IMAX in 3-D.

Like some here at the HTF, the first viewing didn't impress me that much, but like others, the 3-D experience of the same film was so unique, it was exhilarating, by extremely putting me in the animation.

The familiarity of already seeing it once, added to the experience, by allowing me to leisurely and comfortably notice many other aspects of the film, character development, background action and subtle humorous expressions, that made this experience one of the most emotionally nostalgic and entertaining Christmas theme movies I’ve ever experienced.

Can hardly wait now, to get this on DVD.:wink:

Recommended for the young, young at heart and possibly, may even help the 'ghost of Christmas past', give the 'Scrooges' in the audience, some nostalgic memories of past holiday emotional thrills they had in their youth. Posted Image

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#13 of 84 OFFLINE   Paul Anthony

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Posted November 20 2005 - 03:34 AM

It's creepy, it's weird, it's hot chocolatey wonderful! Posted Image Posted Image Posted Image

#14 of 84 OFFLINE   Neil White

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Posted November 20 2005 - 04:20 AM

I have to agree about the 3D at the IMAX - absolutely emersive. I saw it last year at a special evening where my sons Kindergarten class all went together. Looking forward to this one.

#15 of 84 OFFLINE   Joel C

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Posted November 20 2005 - 11:06 AM

I saw it in IMAX and was more impressed by the 3-D than the movie itself, which was basically a big roller coaster ride. I sort of want the DVD, but I know seeing it on a TV would be a letdown.
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#16 of 84 ONLINE   Malcolm R

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Posted November 20 2005 - 02:46 PM

I'm with Colin. Just watching the trailers for this thing freaks me right out! There's no way I could watch the entire thing (unless it was as part of a Halloween scary movie fest).
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#17 of 84 OFFLINE   Dave Mack

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Posted November 20 2005 - 04:25 PM

could it be because the characters look a little like the humans in the Resident Evil games?

Posted Image

I'm stoked for this, missed it in theatres.


#18 of 84 OFFLINE   BarryS


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Posted November 20 2005 - 04:43 PM

I completely agree. The Polar Express is by far, the best Hollywood Christmas movie in years. Everyone needs to check this movie out at least once, especially those of you with awesome home theater systems and enormous TV screens. But even without a huge screen and surround sound setup, I think this film is still a masterpiece.

#19 of 84 OFFLINE   PeterTHX



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Posted November 20 2005 - 05:02 PM

The Polarizing Express? Saw it both in 2D DLP and 3D IMAX. "Hot Chocolate" I could do without, otherwise a good film.

#20 of 84 OFFLINE   Mike Frezon

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Posted November 20 2005 - 05:05 PM

george: I would guess your son must also be stoked this is coming out. Wasn't it you last year who had a hard time explaining why you couldn't go right out and get a copy for home viewing?!

There's Jessie the yodeling cowgirl. Bullseye, he's Woody's horse. Pete the old prospector. And, Woody, the man himself.Of course, it's time for Woody's RoundUp. He's the very best! He's the rootinest, tootinest cowboy in the wild, wild west!

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