Warner Bros. // 2004 // 100 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // November 29th, 2005
"Well, ya comin'?"
"To the North Pole, of course! This is the Polar Express!"
Based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg (Jumanji, Zathura), a young boy had become increasingly skeptical of Christmas, and may not believe in Santa Claus anymore. Around 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, he wakes up to the sound of a train pulling up to the front of his door. The conductor advises him to get on, and he does, for a train bound for the North Pole, looking to meet Santa Claus. The common thread in each character? Well, they're almost all voiced by Oscar winner Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Apollo 13). Moreover, the film is full of computer-generated images, from the performers on down. Do Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, Forrest Gump) have another hit on their hands?
The story, adapted by Zemeckis, finds Hero Boy (Hanks) getting on the Polar Express, and he meets Hero Girl (voiced by Nona Gaye, Crash) and Know-It-All (voiced by Eddie Deezen, WarGames). While on the train, they are served hot chocolate, and go through some adventures while getting to the North Pole, in order to meet Santa. Along the way, Hero Boy and Hero Girl meet a young child named Billy, who also has lost his belief in Christmas because the holidays just don't work out for him. The trio manages to explore a part of the North Pole, and see the elves' workshop, just before a chance encounter with an old man in a red velvet suit with a white beard.
How can you judge performances on computer-generated characters? Well, Zemeckis has helped to introduce a process called "performance capture" technology. Simply put, the process looks very similar to a behind the scenes peek at an EA Sports game, except for some fairly creepy small blue balls that attach to a performer's face, similar to Martian acne or something. This is done in order to capture facial expressions during speaking, or even silent, subtle expressions. While this does work in some portions, other scenes make it look like exactly what it is, which is creepy. There was a 3-D version in IMAX theaters, and the scenes that would enhance that are pretty good, so the creepiness factor is somewhat diminished. And aside from the usual scenes in a film of this nature that show the viewer, "gosh, look at how lifelike these people are," the action scenes are obvious effort to put the viewer in the train, with a lot of first person looks at the train going up, down and around steep twists and turns in its travels.
However, the plot resolution is a little bit hollow. It is satisfactory, but it's just not complete. Perhaps there's a little bit of bias in seeing a "bells and whistles" uplifting ending of some sort. The irony seems to be that the film's computer-generated characters may be what detract from any satisfying experience. There's no tangible connection to be made from such artificial settings. Or to put it another way, maybe I just don't believe.
Technically, as is the case with any computer-animated film, the digital transfer saves the trouble of creating a film telecine that has to be transferred back over to disc. And as a result of this, the picture is consistently clear, without any artifacting or video issues. In a way, it's hard to compare The Polar Express to any Pixar or Dreamworks animated releases, because the characters are more comical in those films, and any settings would be hard to contrast. The overall picture quality looks very warm, and seems to capture any feelings conveyed by Van Allsburg's book illustrations. And the action and musical scenes sound good with active surround speaker effects, providing an immersive sound experience.
The supplemental material on the second disc is light and geared towards the wee anklebiters who saw the film. And the viewing experience isn't really enhanced by what's here. There's a look at the performance capture in the film, which is disturbing for the fact of seeing Steven Tyler in a motion capture suit can put viewers over the edge. Without the hair, if there was someone who looked even the slightest bit elvish without prosthetics, that's the guy. A brief look at Van Allsburg follows, along with some time for Josh Groban, who recorded the single for the movie. A set top game that allows kids to navigate the ice field is next (using your remote, of course), and a playable demo is included too. Finally, some crew members recall what their best Christmas was, and that's cute, but also pretty quick, and a hidden song among some Easter eggs completes the extras. All in all, it's very child-friendly, but even the kids will get tired of the games after awhile.
One would assume that the extras for a movie that grossed over $150 million would have a little bit more substance or weight to them, but they're pretty light, and if one of the 5.1 audio tracks was ditched, that would possibly get rid of the second disc, but Warner Brothers is good for that reason. Still, not even a commentary or an extra feature lasting more than 10 consecutive minutes is disappointing.
The film can be enjoyable for viewers of all ages, but it just doesn't have the "holiday classic" moniker that some people have attached to it. The technology is impressive and the main creative players are equally so, but it's hard to imagine that The Polar Express will have the same type of staying power that say, A Christmas Story has.
The court finds Zemeckis, Hanks, and the creative team not guilty as a result of their intentions and effort, and the court finds The Polar Express not guilty for its attempts at a convincing holiday story. Hollywood's technology has improved since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within as the film proves, but there's still some room for improvement.
Review content copyright © 2005 Ryan Keefer; 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
* "You Look Familiar" Performance Capture Featurette
* "A Genuine Ticket to Ride" Making of Featurette
* "True Inspirations: An Author's Adventure" Biographical Examination
* Set Top Games
* Music Video and Behind the Scenes Look
* Additional Song
* Crew Recollections
* Playable DVD-ROM material
* Official Site
* Official Site for Book