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HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: The Polar Express

Blu-ray Reviews

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#1 of 11 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted November 08 2007 - 12:30 AM

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The Polar Express (Blu-ray)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2004
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 1080p VC-1 codec
Running Time: 100 minutes
Rating: G
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: SDH, French, Spanish
MSRP: $28.99

Release Date: October 30, 2007
Review Date: November 8, 2007

The Film


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.

Video Quality


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.

Audio Quality


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.

Special Features


“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.

In Conclusion

3.5/5 (not an average)

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.

Matt Hough
Charlotte, NC

#2 of 11 ONLINE   RolandL



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Posted November 08 2007 - 09:01 AM

It would have been nice if they included a 3-D field sequential version. You could watch it with the new Samsung and Mitsubishi HDTV sets - http://www.3dmovieli...om/3dhdtvs.html
Roland Lataille
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#3 of 11 OFFLINE   JeremyLG


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Posted November 08 2007 - 12:19 PM

I do hope that someday all these films that have 3-D versions showing at various IMAX screens will start being released on the discs too. It was something fun and different to see. Jeremy G.

#4 of 11 OFFLINE   DaViD Boulet

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Posted November 09 2007 - 02:53 AM

Great review. I wish that WB would get on the ball of consistentenly providing lossless audio (ala Disney and Sony). BTW, what's the average video bit-rate for the VC-1 stream? Given that this HD title doesn't "pop" the way you'd normally expect a direct-digital-movie to do, I'd be curious to compare it against the high-bit-rate for AVC used for "reference" titles like Cars and Rataoulle (I'm under the suspician that the relatively low-bit-rate WB uses for many of their VC-1 encodes might not always offer maximum detail). Or do you feel that the softer image might be the intended look? Anyone see this in the theater? Was it sharp or intentionally softened?
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#5 of 11 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted November 09 2007 - 08:56 AM

Thanks, David. I didn't keep the meter turned on during the entire movie, but the four or five times I checked it, it was registering in the mid-teens, much, much lower than Disney's using with the Pixar films encoded with AVC. Like you, I was very disappointed with the lack of a lossless track. The music recording is lush for this movie, and a lossless track would have done the entire enterprise a great favor.

#6 of 11 OFFLINE   DaViD Boulet

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Posted November 09 2007 - 09:11 AM

It seems that, except for a few top "A" titles, WB has taken a "good enough" approach to HD media. Whether this is to appease bit-contrants for 30GB authoring or just a "style" of WB will become more apparent as time goes forward. Hopefully WB will be coaxed out of their "good enough" position to master each and every disc to its optimal "best" potential. WB showed similar trends with DVD. Though in some regards they set standards, in others (like audio) they consistently lagged behind... it was only very late in the game that WB finally started to use the 448 kbps datarate on DVD for DD audio--long after most other studios had moved to 448 DD (and DTS). I've been told that MS was handling the costs and offering services for compressing in VC-1 for Warner. MS has a goal of getting bit-rate as low as possible while maintaining the appearance of high-fidelity. Their long-range goal with VC-1 is not just for HD media where bandwidth may be plentiful: they want VC-1 for online use where bandwidth and storage are at a premium. I've often wondered if MS is intentionally using low bit-rates when helping WB compress titles in order to test and tweak their codec's algorithms to keep pushing bit-rate down. After all, with real material to work with, it exposes shortcomings in their codec that they can then address. That would be very helpful from a codec development-side, but not necessarily mean that a given title was being mastered with perfect transparency in mind for the consumer (if part of the goal was to create a test-bed for algorithm development along the way). In any case, it's no secret that the bit-rate WB uses for advanced video codecs is generally 1/2 that that other studios use for AVC... even though both codecs boast the same efficiency in compression ratios/transparency and even when there's more room on the HD DVD/BD! That can't be a coincidence, and neither is the coorlation with many "slightly soft" HD images coming from many low bit-rate VC-1 compression jobs. Dan Ramer has a great article comparing AVC and VC-1 on various titles at various bit-rates and comparing PQ scores from many independent web-sites. His indications are that high-bit-rate AVC is, on average, out-performing VC-1.
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#7 of 11 OFFLINE   London Lawson

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Posted November 09 2007 - 09:19 AM

I have not seen this on BR, but I thought it looked amazing on dvd.

#8 of 11 OFFLINE   Chris S

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Posted November 10 2007 - 01:44 PM

I really liked this film quite a bit and expect that it will be one of those childhood treasures in the coming years. It doesn't sound as if it's worth upgrading given your review of the video portion which is a bit disappointing. I may pick it up sometime down the road if I find it on sale. Thanks for the review!
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#9 of 11 OFFLINE   DaViD Boulet

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Posted November 11 2007 - 03:47 AM

At the very least, BD/HD DVD should offer lossless audio... even if the video source material doesn't benefit as much from 1080p as reference discs. Grrr!
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#10 of 11 OFFLINE   Shane Martin

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Posted November 11 2007 - 04:35 AM

I wasn't expecting Warner to release this with lossless as the HD version didn't have it either. I'm more saddened by how this thread was hijacked into bitrate discussions and how bad MS is aka format war nonsense. I'll pick this up as a sale disc here soon. It's an enjoyable Christmas movie but the unlifelike characters tend to freak me out a bit.

#11 of 11 OFFLINE   DaViD Boulet

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Posted November 11 2007 - 04:51 AM

Shane, it bothers me that WB released this without lossless audio on HD DVD as well. Their habit of neglecting audio transparency is format-neutral. I think when a reviewer comments that an all-digital film doesn't meet his expectations of image clarity, and the video bit-rate happens to average about 1/2 that of "reference" Hi-def titles that do meet those expectations, that a discussion about how bit-rate might be a possible factor is legitimate. My musings about MS's possible role/hand in this were intended to not be war-mongering. On the contrary, MS is really getting personally involved in these VC-1 compressions (according to Amir at AVS), and so given their low-average-bit-rate, I was just making some conjectures on possible reasons why MS seems to "push the meter low" if you will when other compression houses do just the opposite. When Amir was representing MS in codec discussions he continually stressed how their goal was absolutely to keep pushing the bit-rate down as low as possible... while maintaining perceived image quality of course. He stressed that MS was interested in getting their codec to work as good as it can at a low a bit-rate as possible for uses beyond HD DVD and BD media... so my conjecture about the softness of this title was spring-boarded off of those remarks at AVS. If my conjecture brought up tones of war-mongering my appologies. I certainly don't want a valid and important issue to get off-loaded from discussion because of questions about my intentions in bringing them forward.
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