Warner Bros. // 2004 // 100 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway (Retired) // October 26th, 2006
Journey beyond your imagination.
Remember how everybody made a big deal about the fact that Tom Hanks plays five different characters in this movie? That's nice and all, but where's the love for Eddie Deezen?
A little boy whose belief in Santa Claus is slowly waning eagerly awaits the sound of sleigh bells on Christmas Eve, but what he hears instead is the sound of a train pulling up outside his house. Venturing out into the cold, the boy encounters a punctuality-obsessed conductor who urges him to climb aboard. The train is the Polar Express. Its destination is the North Pole.
Adapted from Chris Van Allsburg's beloved Caldecott Medal-winning children's book, The Polar Express isn't quite the holiday classic director Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks were hoping to create, but it still stands head-and-shoulders above most of the sappy junk Hollywood cranks out during the silly season. The movie is by turns maudlin, nostalgic, and manipulative, but it's also thrilling, funny, and affecting. It has all the hallmarks of great children's entertainment, but it's lacking that certain, for lack of a better word, magic needed to put it over the top.
Most of the hype surrounding The Polar Express centered on the performance capture technique used to bring the characters to life. Adult performers were garbed in form-fitting suits covered with target sensors that allowed the actors' movements to be recorded and later fleshed out using CG animation. The basic technique has been around in one form or another for some time now, but it had never been used to quite this extent. It's an impressive technical feat...for the most part. As many reviewers more capable than yours truly have already pointed out, the animators couldn't quite get the kids' faces right. The adults look fine, but many of the younger characters look more than a bit creepy, as if their flesh and bones had been pushed, pulled, and molded into shapes nature never intended. And in the case of Know-It-All, who is voiced by the immortal Eddie Deezen, the character's voice often seems disconnected from the body, although I think Deezen's distinctive voice is at least half the problem.
On the other hand, the world the characters inhabit is an impressive technical achievement...for the entire part. The locales are gorgeously rendered, especially the North Pole itself, which actually looks like the sort of place capable of cranking out millions of toys on a yearly basis. The sequence in which the train first arrives at Hero Boy's house, with its subtle shadings, lights piercing through the steam, and gently falling snow, is stunningly beautiful. The action sequences are handled with great skill (especially the sequence chronicling the adventures of lost ticket, which is easily my favorite scene in the movie). And the final act, an extended sequence detailing Santa and his elves' preflight preparations, works like gangbusters. (I would admit that this sequence tugged at the old heartstrings, but I have a reputation to uphold.)
The transfer on the standard definition release came just shy of reaching perfection; this new HD transfer doesn't. Colors are rich and vivid, blacks are incredibly deep, and the sharpness and clarity in even the smallest of details is staggering. The audio is just as impressive. Dialogue is crystal clear, and the low end is deep and tight. Surround action is plentiful and perfectly integrated.
All of the extras, which are aimed squarely at the kiddies, have been ported over from the earlier two-disc release. These include a deleted scene/song, the theatrical trailer, a game demo, and a brief interview with author Chris Van Allsburg. There's also a look at the recording of the song featured during the closing credits, footage of John Groban performing the song live, and a featurette in which several members of the cast and crew share their favorite Christmas memories. The only material of any substance can be found in the featurettes detailing the particulars of the performance capture technique. These include Hanks briefly discussing the technique's challenges and benefits, five split-screen sequences featuring the actual capture sessions contrasted with the finished footage (these were available as Easter eggs on the original disc), and a five-part documentary breaking down the film's production.
My one big beef with this movie is the episodic nature of much of the first hour. There's a long stretch during which incident is simply piled upon incident: Hero Girl loses her ticket and Hero Boy attempts to retrieve it. Hero Boy meets the Hobo and almost loses his head. The cotter pin pops loose. The train flies down the incline and slides across the frozen lake. I'm sure this will not bother the small fry who make up the movie's target audience, but for me it eventually became a bit much. At least one of these sequences could easily have been excised. The movie is also a tad too long, and the songs are less than memorable.
Hey, if a scrooge like me can enjoy it this much, anyone with a soul should really eat it up.
Review content copyright © 2006 Mitchell Hattaway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Smokey and Steamer Song
* You Look Familiar: The Many Polar Faces of Tom Hanks
* A Genuine Ticket to Ride Documentary Gallery: 5 Featurettes
* True Inspirations: An Author's Adventure: Chris Van Allsburg Profile
* Believe: Josh Groban Performs at the Greek Theater
* Behind the Scenes of Believe
* Flurry of Effects Gallery: 5 Motion-Capture Sessions
* Meet the Snow Angels: The Moviemakers' Christmas Memories
* PC Game Demo
* Theatrical Trailer
* Original The Polar Express Review
* Official Site