Judge Dennis Prince can still hear the bell ringing and is always game to take a seat on the Big Man's lap.
Our reviews of The Polar Express: Special Edition (published November 29th, 2005), The Polar Express: 3-D (published November 13th, 2008), and The Polar Express (HD DVD) (published October 26th, 2006) are also available.
This holiday season…believe.
Eager to create a latter-day holiday classic, acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis brought this 1985 Christmas tale to life in a unique new filmmaking style. Now three years following its theatrical bow, The Polar Express arrives in a sparkling new Blu-ray presentation.
Facts of the Case
On Christmas Eve, an eight-year-old boy lays awake in bed pondering whether he has "outgrown" the holiday. And just as he seriously doubts his belief in the spirit of Christmas, a giant train—the Polar Express—impossibly rumbles to a stop outside his bedroom window. Coaxed aboard by a friendly, yet no-nonsense conductor (Tom Hanks), the boy, clad only in his pajamas and robe, joins other children in their nightclothes on a magical journey to the North Pole. The conductor keeps a close eye on the time, ensuring the train arrives on time for Santa to award the first gift of Christmas, thereby launching his annual gift-giving sojourn. But when the boy himself is awarded the first gift, a shiny silver sleigh bell, his inability to hear the sweet jingle causes him to wonder whether he still believes, unconditionally, in the spirit of the holiday.
Chris Van Allsburg's beloved book has been a modern staple of the Christmas celebration, read to youngsters with the same loving warmth as The Night Before Christmas in generations past. Published in 1985 in a culture that doubts the existence of the "Jolly Old Elf," Allsburg showed that Santa was alive and well for all who still believed. To those who chose to "board the train" then, Allsburg assured the spirit of the holiday would be fostered and fulfilled within their hearts. Certainly, this approach offered this choice to young and old, to anyone who could shrug off facts in deference to a denominational alignment instead. Clever.
Nearly twenty years after publication, Zemeckis and Tom Hanks determined to bring the magical tale to the big screen. It was heralded as a modern-day holiday fantasy that would charm and enchant in a manner reminiscent of The Miracle on 34th Street. Well, not exactly. The film is charming, to be sure, but the brief illustrated book was significantly stretched to fill a 100-minute running time. There's plenty of adventure inserted into the story as well as several additional characters.
The difficulty that comes when viewing The Polar Express is due to the innovative yet unsettling results of the motion-capture animation, that in which live actors are filmed and their performances are translated to computer-generated animation. The outcome, inventive though it is, is creepy. While the process is able to capture interesting details of movement and structure, it presents character faces that are unnatural, features seeming to exist on varying planes with flattened faces, lifeless eyes, and misshapen mouths. The renditions of the train, the landscapes, and other non-human elements are well-done and pleasing to behold yet the performances of the "human" characters is just off-setting enough to prevent viewers from fully immersing themselves in the spirit of the story.
Coming a full year behind the HD DVD-formatted high-definition release, this Blu-ray rendition offers all of the same that was previously offered in the "red box" version. The image delivered by this 1080p / VC-1 encode is crisp and flawless, the original all-digital source appearing absolutely flawless. Color saturation is almost overdone but refrains from bleeding…just. Textures are perfectly rendered, just as you'd expect, too. The only downside here is that, when compared to the excellent standard definition release from 2005, you won't get a significant boost from the high-definition treatment. There is improvement, of course, but not so much so that you should feel compelled to upgrade an SD edition you might already own. The same holds for the disc's audio track, where a 640bps Dolby Digital 5.1 track performs comparably with the HD DVD offering. It's a well-presented sound here, with plenty of low end rumble and surround channel activity, dialog always clear and intelligible from the center channel. Following on that "sameness" sentiment, you'll find all of the same extras that graced the SD and HD DVD editions are available here as well. While we're thankful this Blu-ray edition is on par with its counterparts, it lacks any exclusive features that would make it a must-buy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the generally unsettling look of its characters, The Polar Express succeeds in delivering a family-friendly message that is respectful of the Christmas story while carefully treading the line of political correctness. Spirituality is pretty much avoided but never in a manner that would offend Christians. The all-inclusive attitude of the story ensures none will feel sidelined because of race, creed, or color. With those bases carefully covered, the film does a reasonable job in unfolding its magical sensibility. Composer Alan Silvestri delivers a pleasing score with a main theme that feels very much to be channeling from the late great Jerry Goldsmith. The music swells in the right moments in a way that will coax out a tear of two among more sensitive viewers.
While it's not a true holiday classic in the purest sense of the term, The Polar Express is still worthy of inclusion in a family's holiday viewing lineup. This new Blu-ray looks and sounds great but doesn't wow us significantly above and beyond the previous standard definition or HD DVD release. But, in its all-inclusive sensibility, the fact that this film is now available in all formats, it's properly adaptable to any family's viewing preferences.
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