Warner Bros. // 2004 // 100 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // November 13th, 2008
Another year, another release of The Polar Express.
The Polar Express was a short, wistful children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, with an adventure story that appealed to youngsters and a message about the power of faith and the value of dream-keeping that resonated with adults. Under the aegis of Tom Hanks, this wispy material became a bloated, hyperkinetic blockbuster in 2004.
The plot is simple: a young boy reaching the age where he's questioning the existence of Santa Claus dreams of a magical train ride to the North Pole where he is inspired by the jolly old elf himself to believe. In the Robert Zemeckis-directed film, this delicate story is buried under a riot of visual trickery, the Christmas Eve dream becoming an elaborately fevered frenzy that makes Dorothy's imagined journey to Oz seem like a bourbon-and-rotgut blackout.
Much was made about the animation, which captured and digitized actors playing the roles and then spit them out in a convoluted animated form. This creepy, so-lifelike/faux-lifelike, Rotoscope-meets-Playstation technique makes the characters look like cartoon zombies, but since no one eats Tom Hanks, there is no payoff. Seriously, this is scary stuff, particularly the way the children are rendered. All these little bastards need are some sharp sticks and Karen Black, and we'd have a whole different holiday classic.
Having already been graced with the Special Edition (Single-Disc, Two-Disc, and Gift Set with Snow Globe and Toy), the HD DVD Edition, and the Blu-Ray Edition, we now get The Polar Express: 3-D Edition. A film this frantic seems made for 3-D, and The Polar Express was, in fact, made for IMAX 3-D. Certainly, no one is expecting to replicate the IMAX experience on a 42-inch TV screen, but even if your expectations are realistically low, this 3-D set might disappoint.
The Polar Express: 3-D is your father's 3-D. We get the old cardboard, red-and-blue 3-D specs, four pairs, so if your kids are viewing this multiple times with multiple friends, prepare for a pink eye epidemic. Actually, that's probably not a concern, as these flimsy glasses aren't going to hold up for multiple viewings.
The red and blue glasses, naturally, throw off the color perception, but the film's color palette is fairly muted to begin with, although the things that would stand out in 3-D appear bold and brightly lit. Frankly, the 2-D version has an impressive level of visual depth, and many of the sequences -- particularly a roller coaster-like "runaway train" episode and the famous "flying golden ticket" bit -- already look like virtual reality rides at an amusement park. The 3-D version elevates these parts from quease-inducing to stomach churning, and it does a decent job with some of the less dramatic effects -- snow falling, fingers thrusting through holes in pockets, and so on.
In general, though, like the majority of red-and-blue-glasses 3-D, this is a bit cheesy and lacking. The set includes a page of viewing tips ("There should be minimal glare on the TV screen from the lights and the windows in the room"), but even if you follow them all to the letter, this is still not a great viewing experience. The images just don't look right through those glasses, and the whole thing gave me headache early on. I'm guessing this will be an attractive novelty for the kids, but I can't imagine them making it through the entire 100 minutes with those glasses, though fast forwarding to the "exciting" scenes will probably make them happy.
Fortunately, the set also comes with the old 2-D version. I'm guessing that this was the disc included in the 2005 Two-Disc Special Edition because it is labeled "Disc One." Other than the trailer, there are no supplements to be found on either the 2-D or 3-D versions.
I'll admit that I'm no fan of The Polar Express. I found it overly manufactured and emotionally empty, a cynical and desperate effort to create a "new classic." But lots of people have seen and enjoyed this film, and it's been written about extensively, and the question before me is: Is it worth a potential quadruple dip for the 3-D? And my answer would be no. Whatever qualms I have about the film, I never thought it looked cheap...until I tried sitting through it with the cardboard glasses. Maybe Warner Bros. had better luck with 3-D in the recent Journey to the Center of the Earth -- Judges Clark Douglas and James A. Stewart didn't have major gripes -- but The Polar Express: 3-D treatment just seems shoddy.
Guilty of trying to get new milk from an old cash cow.
Review content copyright © 2008 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated G