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Groundbreaking film for its time 4 Stars

Warner brings Robert Zemeckis’ holiday favorite The Polar Express to 4K UHD Blu-ray.

The Polar Express (2004)
Released: 10 Nov 2004
Rated: G
Runtime: 100 min
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Cast: Tom Hanks, Chris Coppola, Michael Jeter
Writer(s): Chris Van Allsburg, Robert Zemeckis, William Broyles Jr.
Plot: On Christmas Eve, a young boy embarks on a magical adventure to the North Pole on the Polar Express, while learning about friendship, bravery, and the spirit of Christmas.
IMDB rating: 6.6
MetaScore: 61

Disc Information
Studio: Warner Brothers
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution: 2160p HEVC w/HDR
Aspect Ratio: 2.39.1
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HDMA, English Descriptive Audio, Spanish 5.1 DD, French 5.1 DD, Other
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French, Other
Rating: G
Run Time: 1 Hr. 40 Min.
Package Includes: UHD, Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Case Type: 2-disc UHD keepcase with slipcover
Disc Type: UHD
Region: All
Release Date: 11/01/2022
MSRP: $33.99

The Production: 3.5/5

My, how technology has improved in eighteen years. In 2004, filmmakers Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis brought the popular children’s storybook The Polar Express to the big screen. Their decision to use a technology called performance capture to animate the entire film, something that had only been used sporadically in feature films up to that point to bring certain characters to life (Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings), was groundbreaking. While the technology was still rather crude at the time, the animators did succeed in capturing the feel of the illustrations from Chris Van Allsburg’s book. That is definitely part of the charm of the film, in addition to its magical journey of a young boy who is doubting the existence of Santa Claus and is picked up by a train that pulls up to his front door on Christmas Eve filled with kids, many of whom have similar doubts. Hanks plays several characters, including Hero Boy (voiced by Daryl Sabara), the Conductor, the Hobo, Scrooge, and Santa Claus. Rounding out the cast are Eddie Deezen as Know-It-All, Peter Scolari as Billy, Steven Tyler as the Elf Lieutenant and Singer, Charles Fleischer as the Elf General, and Michael Jeter as both Smokey and Steamer.

Watching the film today, it is difficult not to overlook the issue that performance capture films have tried to overcome, the Uncanny Valley. Some were so bothered by it at the time of its theatrical release that many referred to the film as The Bi-Polar Express. Children are usually able to look past that, and that would certainly explain how the film’s popularity among young audiences has snowballed over the years. Robert Zemeckis would go on to direct or produce four more features using this technology (Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, Monster House and Mars Needs Moms) before returning to live action with Flight in 2012. He would not abandon the technology, though, and managed to almost overcome the Uncanny Valley in Welcome to Marwen by incorporating the actor’s eye performance into the CG animated captured performance.

Video: 5/5

3D Rating: NA

With all of the computing power needed to render the animation, The Polar Express was likely rendered and completed as a 2K digital intermediate back in 2004, released in IMAX 3D in the 2:1 aspect ratio and 2.39:1 for more traditional theatrical exhibitions.  Warner’s upscaled 2160p HEVC-encoded transfer with HDR10 high dynamic range is surprisingly excellent considering the lower resolution source. There is a slight uptick in overall detail, particularly in fabric textures, and colors are more vibrant. Contrast is greatly improved, with much deeper blacks than the previous Blu-ray releases were able to achieve, bringing out more shadow detail, and highlights are also greatly improved, allowing for searing whites without affecting the rest of the image (take a look at the train’s headlight at the 32:06 mark). The included Blu-ray in this set has been remastered, appears to use the same updated 4K master as its source.

Audio: 4.5/5

Warner has included the same DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that appeared on the 3D Blu-ray release (which had very disappointing 3D). It’s a fairly solid track, with a wide front soundstage, active surrounds, and an engaging LFE track that adds some heavy emphasis on crashes and pounding of the locomotive’s engine. Alan Silvestri’s score is spread evenly across all channels. Dialogue is clear and understandable throughout.

Special Features: 3/5

The UHD disc contains no special features whatsoever, but the included Blu-ray has ported over all of the special features from previous releases. Many of the featurettes have been upscaled from their 480/30i source and suffer from some horrible interlacing and frame drop issues, though.

You Look Familiar (upscaled 1080i; 4:10): A look at all of the various characters Tom Hanks plays in the film.

A Genuine Ticket to Ride (upscaled 1080p; 13:25): A look at the making of the film, aimed more at a younger audience.

True Inspirations: An Author’s Adventure (upscaled 1080p; 5:29): Author Chris Van Allsburg is interviewed.

Believe: Behind the Scenes (upscaled 1080p; 4:24): A behind the scenes look at the recording of the end credit song Believe.

Flurry of Effects (upscaled 1080p; 8:51): A split screen look at five sequences, performance capture footage on top and final animation below.

“Smokey and Steamer” Deleted Song (upscaled 1080p; 7:23)

Josh Groban at the Greek (upscaled 1080p; 4:34): Groban performs the song Believe in front of a live audience at The Greek Theater in Los Angeles.

Meet the Snow Angels (upscaled 1080i; 2:44): The cast and crew reminisce on their favorite memories of Christmas.

Theatrical Trailer (1080p; 2:31)

Digital Copy: An insert contains a code to redeem a digital copy (in UHD where available) on Movies Anywhere.

Overall: 4/5

The Polar Express looks surprisingly good on 4K UHD Blu-ray, and includes a remastered 2D Blu-ray as well. Unfortunately, all of the standard definition special features have been poorly upscaled on the Blu-ray disc.

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Published by

Todd Erwin

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Noel Aguirre

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A modern Christmas classic. Never miss giving it a spin around the holidays

Indeed it is! And it was really made for a 3D experience. And unlike what the reviewer states the 3D Blu-ray although problematic at times is still an exhilarating experience. However in the theater it was nothing sort of breathtaking in IMAX 3D as kids were actually grasping at the snowflakes falling and other objects throughout the film. As for the human eye problem it doesn’t bother me at all as it’s based on illustrations and that it’s appeal IMO as they’re not meant to be human replicants and it’s obviously animation. It also has an Edward Hopper look to it which I particularly like and helps evoke the sadness the children experience up until the North Pole revelation. I love this film!

Edit: on second thought not Hopper but more of a ‘40s Industrial look
 
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jim_falconer

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To steer this thread back to the film again, one of my most cherished Christmas memories comes from it. I think my oldest daughter was around 5 or 6 yrs old when we first purchased the DVD. We watched it on Christmas Eve that year, and after she’d gone to bed, I asked my wife what was a suitcase doing next to the front door. She said Samantha (my daughter) had packed it. She didn’t want to miss going on the polar express, if it happened to come down our road.
 

Indy Guy

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I saw the 3D Imax version several times and have both the 3D BR and the new 4K version.
I have never encountered any distractions in the 3D version, viewing it both on active and passive panels. While the new 4K disc has all the qualities the reviewer states, I still prefer viewing the 3D disc, as my focus is shifted away from the characters into the amazing compositions of depth and dimensional design. 3D greatly distracts from any preoccupation with unperfected animation efforts. I'm curious what others found distracting about the 3D disc, as I see no ghosting and it has a very dramatic depth of field. Plus, I definitely still reach for the snowflakes falling in front of the screen!
 

Dave Moritz

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Please let us know what you think. As a native 2K source when shown in IMAX it looked fantastic so I’m hoping for the same on this presentation. I wish WB would redo the 3D version or if not then let 3D Archives do it .

So it is upscaled from 2K and to me it looks about the same as the 2K bluray upconverted through my Panasonic DP-UB9000 4K UHD Blu-ray Player. I would say there is a slight improvement over the blu-ray but I feel it is not a huge difference and is lacking that 4K pop. Maybe they did not want it that way or maybe it is a limitation from the animation done at a lower resolution I honestly do not know. I would say if you do not have this title go for it but if you have the bluray already and are happy with it I would skip it. I borrowed my nighbors bluray as I did not have this title before purchasing it on 4K bluray.

Polar Express Specs.jpg
 

Malcolm R

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I've never been able to watch it because of the creepy factor. I also feel the same with Beowulf.
 

TravisR

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Somehow I never knew that the animation was looked down on by some. I thought it looked like the book come to life and I have always been charmed by it. I am going to stick with the 3-D blu-ray as I think it is a lot of fun.
I've seen the "uncanny valley" thing brought up in recent years (though I'm sure some people didn't like it from day one) but yeah, I always thought this was a kindhearted and enjoyable movie too.
 

Dave Moritz

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I wouldn't say I disliked it but it is a little different and actually reminds me a little of how pictures looked in the older kids books. It doesn't look like alot of modern animation but that is not a bad thing because it makes the movie stand out. I wouldn't be surprised if there are some that are critical of how this film looks.

Polar Express 4K.jpg
 

JC Riesenbeck

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Somehow I never knew that the animation was looked down on by some. I thought it looked like the book come to life and I have always been charmed by it. I am going to stick with the 3-D blu-ray as I think it is a lot of fun.
Yeah, hating on the animation in this beautifully rendered movie is like a cult. I'm not bothered by it because there's a whole lot here to love and the whole shlemiel about the animation is basically rinse and repeat ad nauseum.
 

JoshZ

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Yeah, hating on the animation in this beautifully rendered movie is like a cult. I'm not bothered by it because there's a whole lot here to love and the whole shlemiel about the animation is basically rinse and repeat ad nauseum.

The zombie automatons in this movie are endless nightmare fuel.

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