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