Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Studio: Warner Bros.
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 1080p VC-1 codec
Running Time: 100 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: SDH, French, Spanish
Release Date: October 30, 2007
Review Date: November 8, 2007
Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book The Polar Express is a simple faith-driven children’s Christmas tale, and Robert Zemeckis’ motion capture animated version retains the sweet, earnest spirit of the original yarn. Unfortunately, despite its charming story and some very appealing visuals, it’s no classic, and by the end, one might somewhat uncharitably feel that the film has been much ado about very little.
A young boy (acted by Tom Hanks, voiced by Daryl Sabara) finds his belief in Santa Claus waning as he begins to notice certain seasonal irregularities that suggest to him that maybe Santa is fictional. One Christmas Eve, he’s interrupted in his attempts to fall asleep by a foreboding train outside his house called the Polar Express. The slightly acerbic conductor (Tom Hanks) informs him that the train is headed to the North Pole for Santa Claus’ annual ritual of presenting to one lucky child a gift of his own choosing. Curious but skeptical, he agrees only to find himself on a breakneck adventure to the North Pole with one hair-raising encounter after another. On the way he meets two friends, a young girl brimming with belief in Santa (Nona Gaye) and a lonely young boy who tends to stay to himself (acted by Peter Scolari, voiced by Jimmy Bennett). And some other adults also offer some thrills: a hobo along for a free ride (Tom Hanks) and the engineer and stoker Smokey and Steamer (Michael Jeter, voiced by Andre Sogliuzzo).
Yes, Tom Hanks is all over this project, not only acting numerous roles (he’s also the boy’s father and Santa Claus) but also executive producing. Obviously a labor of love for the Oscar-winning actor, The Polar Express does allow him a golden opportunity to create several very individualistic personas and to imbue the project with his unmistakable likeability and warmth. This was the late Michael Jeter’s last film work, and while his duet with himself was cut in the finished film (the fun ditty “Together”), it’s present in rough animation as a bonus feature.
Robert Zemeckis likewise has a reputation for helming whimsical projects that have multiple layers which can be enjoyed by different age groups. The Back to the Future films, Forest Gump, Death Becomes Her, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit all show us a filmmaker who basks in his inner child while presenting us with some hard truths. The Polar Express isn’t quite the equal of any of those pictures, but in its slightly less sophisticated way, it gets its points about believing in something that others deny across to kids without leaving adults behind.
The motion capture technology combined with standard computer animation produces human characters in more realistic detail than standard CGI human renderings, but the humans sometimes resemble wax figures or even zombies to an extent that their less realistic counterparts in standard CGI animation don’t. For that reason, I’m not sure this advance in animation really serves as much of an improvement. More human characters in an obviously animated world seems to remain caught in a Twilight Zone of neither real nor obviously fake domains. That said, the animation does give us some memorable moments: several roller coaster-like rises and falls as the train careens over the countryside, and a memorable trip across a frozen lake starting to break up is lots of fun. So, too, is a beautifully produced production number “Hot Chocolate” as well as two beautiful ballads: the children’s “When Christmas Comes to Town” and the Oscar-nominated “Believe” sung over the closing credits by Josh Groban.
The film’s 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio is reproduced in 1080p using the VC-1 encode. Though the master used for the Blu-ray disc is pristine with no blemishes or artifacts at all, I didn’t find the image outrageously better than the standard definition version. Colors are solid, whites are bright without blooming, and sharpness is never a problem. I saw some slight edge enhancement early on but not later in the film. The BD does an excellent job with dimensionality in the made-for-3-D sequences when the train is out of control down a steep incline or when the camera pulls overhead and we see our heroes tightrope walking across a deep chasm on the slimmest of rails. The film has been divided into 24 chapters.
While no lossless track has been provided, the Dolby Digital 5.1 (48 kHz, 640 kbps) track is beautifully recorded with the large orchestral music tracks spreading wide across the sound spectrum and with outstanding use of the LFE channel throughout the film.
“You Look Familiar: The Many Polar Faces of Tom Hanks” is a 4-minute glimpse at actor Tom Hanks portraying his many characters in the film using split screen to see him in his motion capture suit and in the finished film. This and all subsequent featurettes are presented in 480i
“A Genuine Ticket to Ride” is a combination of 5 featurettes covering various aspects of making this film. The motion capture elements for the actors, the action scenes, the hair and wardrobe, the North Pole set, and the music score are all covered (too briefly) in this 13½-minute documentary.
“True Inspirations: An Author’s Adventure” is a 5½-minute look at the book’s author Chris Van Allsburg. Details of his education and how he got into the business of children’s books are provided.
“Behind the Scenes of ‘Believe’” introduces us to lyricist Glen Ballard and singer Josh Groban as they work on fashioning the film’s Oscar-nominated song “Believe” for the soundtrack. This featurette runs 4 ½ minutes. Groban is also shown singing the song live in concert at the Greek Theater in a separate 4½-minute feature.
“Flurry of Effects” gives us 8 minutes of split screens where we see five motion capture photography original scenes and their counterparts in the finished film.
“Smokey and Steamer Song” is the deleted song “Together” sung by the two engine cohorts (both played by Michael Jeter and lovingly dedicated to him). Shown in rough animation form, the scene runs 7 minutes.
“Meet the Snow Angels” offers not quite 3 minutes of reminiscences by the cast and crew of memorable Christmas events in their lives.
The theatrical trailer and a pitch for the video game version of the movie run together a total of 1½ minutes.
Costing $165 million, the film became a sleeper hit during the 2004 holiday season. With a simple story, some good but not great action sequences, and some unusual and sharp visuals, there is enough to The Polar Express to delight children and not bore their parents in the meantime.