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Robert Zemeckis
Tom Hanks, Leslie Harter Zemeckis, Eddie Deezen, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari
Writing Credits:
Chris Van Allsburg (book), Robert Zemeckis, William Broyles Jr.

This Holiday Season ... Believe.

A young boy's belief in Santa Claus is rewarded on Christmas Eve when he's awakened by a steam train whose conductor (Tom Hanks) pulls up in front of his house and takes him and other children on a magical journey to the North Pole.

Box Office:
$150 million.
Opening Weekend
$23.323 million on 3650 screens.
Domestic Gross
$162.753 million.

Rated G

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 100 min.
Price: $20.98
Release Date: 10/28/2008

• Trailers


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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The Polar Express: 3-D (2004)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 6, 2008)

With a few notable exceptions like the cynical Bad Santa, most Christmas movies shoot for a sense of magic and wonder. Not many of them achieve this, though, and it seems like the harder they try, the bigger they fail.

Add 2004ís The Polar Express to that list of clunkers. A massively expensive computer-animated fable based on Chris Van Allsburgís 1985 book, Express desperately wants to enchant, but in the end, it only seems desperate.

On Christmas Eve, a 10-year-old boy (voiced by Daryl Sabara, acted by Tom Hanks) flirts with a disbelief in Santa Claus. After he nods off, something bizarre occurs: a locomotive steams up to his house. A conductor (Hanks) invites him to come with them to the North Pole. After a quick moment of refusal, the boy changes his mind and hops on the train.

There he befriends a girl (Nona Gaye) and assists another child (voiced by Jimmy Bennett, acted by Peter Scolari) who almost misses the train. The latter seems lonely and keeps himself apart from the others for much of the time. The film follows the trainís trip to the North Pole as well as adventures along the way and at the North Pole.

Will the boy meet Santa? Will his belief be restored? Will you stay awake? Yes, yes, and no. Express takes a 32-page illustrated book and expands it to a 100-minute movie with dull results. The movie features roughly 10 minutes of story and pads the running time to ridiculous extremes.

Really, itís more of a theme park attraction than a feature film. At times I thought I was at Disneyland as I watched the stunts and activities. The movie boasts virtually no attempts to develop a narrative or characters. Instead, it leaps from one situation to another with abandon, and none of these connect to us.

The gimmicky animation and casting donít help. Hanks portrays six roles and does the voice for all of those except the boy. Why? I have no idea. This doesnít make the movie more effective in any manner, but I guess it looks exciting from a publicity point of view.

Express boasts extensive use of motion capture technology, so unlike a normal animated movie, the performers acted out the physical movements of the characters and they were adapted to the screen. I guess this isnít tremendously different than rotoscoping, though it features more of a high-tech edge.

And it fails to succeed, though that gimmick isnít the biggest problem with the animation. Instead, the decision to go for a fairly photo-real look to the characters is what kills it. All of the ďhumansĒ have a disturbingly plastic look to them. Their faces look like masks that always remain uncomfortably immobile and they never seem remotely real or convincing.

This means we always stay at a distance from them and the material. Given that this is a sentimental journey, thatís not a good thing. At no point does the story ever threaten to engage or move us since weíre so put off by the weird look of the characters. Theyíre stiff and creepy Ė thatís not a good recipe for an emotional holiday tale.

Frankly, I donít understand filmmakersí obsession with photo-real computer animation. Sure, it makes sense for movies like Jurassic Park where you really want to pass off the CG for something real, but Express is a cartoon. If you want the characters to look human, why not just film actors live? Whatís the point of making cartoons look like real people? This robs animation of its charm and turns it into a pointless exercise in technology.

And thatís exactly what The Polar Express ends up being: one long gimmick with no reason to exist other than as a demo real for computer animation techniques. It lacks soul or heart, and even the technology doesnít succeed, as the characters look so spooky that they distract us from the story. Express is a dull experiment and nothing more.

The DVD Grades: Picture A/ Audio B+/ Bonus D-

The Polar Express appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite my disdain for the movie itself, I canít complain about this excellent transfer.

Sharpness always seemed immaculate. At no point did I discern any softness in this tight, well-defined image. It consistently appeared very crisp and detailed. No problems with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and I saw no signs of edge enhancement. Print flaws were a non-factor, as I never detected spots, specks, or other concerns.

Christmas movies usually come with suitably warm, glowing colors, and that was certainly the case with Express. Actually, they seemed somewhat restrained during the train sequences, but once it reached the North Pole, the hues jumped to life a little more actively. They consistently appeared rich and full. Blacks were deep and firm, while shadows came across as clear and appropriately opaque. No problems ever emerged in this gorgeous transfer.

While not quite so stunning, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Polar Express was quite satisfying. The soundfield got most of its zing from scenes onboard the train or at the North Pole. As I mentioned in the body of this review, the film resembled a theme park attraction. That was bad for the story but good for the soundscape, as it meant the more action-oriented scenes opened up the surrounds well. Those scenes allowed the material to zip and soar around us in a convincing manner.

Quieter sequences were fine. They exhibited a nice, natural sense of atmosphere and conveyed place in a workable way. Music also offered strong stereo delineation.

For the most part, audio quality succeeded. The only mild negative came from the sound of the movieís occasional songs. Those tended to be a little thin and they lacked the range they needed.

Otherwise, the track was good. The score sounded bright and dynamic, while effects were distinctive and accurate. Both of those elements featured rich, deep bass. Speech was consistently natural and crisp, with no issues connected to intelligibility or distortion. I thought the mix wasnít quite involving enough to reach ďAĒ territory, but it was more than satisfactory.

The comments above apply to the standard 2D version of Express, a transfer that literally duplicated the one from the original 2005 DVD; this package simply reissues the same disc from the earlier release. In addition, it gives us a 3D version of the flick. Audio quality remained the same for it as for the 2D rendition, but obviously the visuals became very different - and very hard to objectively assess. The red/blue glasses tend to make things blurry Ė and they give me a bit of a headache, to be honest.

If you can withstand the ugliness of the visuals and the nuisance of the glasses, the 3D did add a bit to the movie. Since they didnít shoot Express for 3D, you wonít find the kinds of ďwowĒ moments from something like Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Instead, Express usually stayed with a general sense of depth, and it did so pretty well. A few scenes provided moderately showier effects, but the movie didnít dazzle us. Nonetheless, I liked the feeling of perspective that came here. The 3D presentation didnít turn this into a good film, but I thought it made things a little livelier.

Because the 3D version replaces the second platter in the original two-disc release, very few supplements appear here. The trailers area presents ads for Fred Claus and A Christmas Story along with the theatrical promo for Polar Express. I didnít think of the 2D version as a supplement, though, so the package gets only a ďD-ď for extras. If you want to consider either the 2D or 3D presentations as extras, though, you can bump that grade to a ďC+Ē.

While itís too bad this package doesnít include the supplements from the earlier release, I canít say I miss them. For the most part, they were pretty lame, so I shanít mourn them. Still, it wouldíve been nice to find them here just to render the prior release superfluous.

On many levels, I must regard The Polar Express as a disappointment. The movie uses high-tech elements in the worst way and ends up as creepy and soulless. The DVD presents excellent visuals and audio but unless you count the original 2D version of the film, it comes with virtually no supplements.

That makes the 3D edition of Polar Express the releaseís sole selling point, as no one will invest in this disc for behind the scenes extras. Fans will likely enjoy the 3D presentation. Those effects didnít dazzle, but they made the movie a bit livelier and more involving, so I thought they worked well. Big fans will want to give the 3D version a look, though they might want to rent the disc first to determine if itís worth a purchase.

To rate this film, visit the Widescreen Edition review of THE POLAR EXPRESS

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