Robert Zemeckis, (the guy behind such creative hits as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump) has had a long and successful career as a film director, most of them filled with fascinating characters and unique sights for the eye. Based on a short, illustrated children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, 2004’s Polar Express is a visual treat but remains a bit of a misfire.
Perhaps emboldened by the creative success of his previous projects, Zemeckis took what had been a sweet, uncomplicated story and turned it into an overdone confection. The director seems so concerned with creating visual effects, that the characters get lost somewhere along the way. The Polar Express is the first film Robert Zemeckis attempted using motion capture. The results are a mixed bag. The scenery and surroundings are beautiful, imaginatively rendered in every detail and the animation effectively captures the look and feel of the paintings in Van Allsburg’s book. Unfortunately, the people who inhabit this lovely world look artificial in a creepy way.
Motion capture requires that live actors perform their roles first, and then computer animation is used to duplicate their actions. I’m always left wondering, if live actors perform the parts, why not make it a live-action movie? Does watching drawings instead of real people make us more apt to believe in a film’s make-believe? I don’t know. If it works for some viewers, it’s worth something.
The meager plot of The Polar Express concerns a young boy beginning to lose his faith in Santa Claus and the magic of Christmas. Then on Christmas eve, the Polar Express shows up at his doorstep to convince him there really is a Santa. Other children who don’t believe in Santa fill the train. From here, the movie presents a heartwarming and moving fable about regaining (or retaining) faith in the Christmas spirit. The boy learns to be kind to other people and to never lose his power of imagination. A simple story about faith, The Polar Express is tailor made for the Christmas season.
Tom Hanks is the main attraction of The Polar Express. An accomplished actor, Hanks aptly voices most of the main characters. Among others, Hanks provides the voices for the hero’s father, the train conductor, a mysterious hobo, and Santa himself. Because Hanks has such a likable persona, having him voice so many characters gives the film a feeling of a bedtime story; Hanks is the storyteller, bringing us all back to simpler times.
The supporting characters are well voiced too. A little girl that the boy befriends is voiced by Nona Gaye; the boy’s sister and mother are voiced by Leslie Zemeckis; a shy, lonely boy is played by Peter Scolari; and a know-it-all kid is played by Eddie Deezen. You’ll recognize Deezen’s distinctive voice from several movies, including 1941 and WarGames.
The action takes places almost entirely on the train and at the North Pole. In a series of short episodes, the boy has various encounters and adventures, none of which feel very involving. Nothing lasts long enough to develop much tension and the lack of clear transitions between events makes it impossible to sustain an engrossing story line. But, when your turning a 32-page book into a 100-minute film, events are bound to be a bit short and fast.
Despite being a moderately entertaining segment, the film’s musical number, “Hot Chocolate” doesn’t work. It’s catchy enough, and a well-animated bit of choreography, but it stands out in an otherwise singing-free affair. Part of the appeal of The Polar Express, is that it blends the heart-felt sentimentality you want from a Christmas film, with the high-energy adrenaline of an action movie to keep everyone entertained.
Presented in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Warner Bros has delivered a solid 4K transfer. The animation is sharper than ever before. Details are impressive throughout. Motion is smooth. Textures are finer, be it the animated characters or backgrounds. While not a particularly vivid palette, colors look natural and pleasing. Dialed in contrast makes everything look striking, particularly the oft present Christmas lights. The film showcases strong blacks that mix well with the occasional primary color. HDR showcases excellent dynamic range. I hadn’t seen The Polar Express since 2019 on Blu-ray. This 4K transfer is superior in every way.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio utilizes the entire soundfield to sell the story. When the Polar Express first arrives, it’s like standing in the station. A bold, enveloping mix, it’s strong and clear. The same kudos can be applied to the dialogue, sound effects, and the touching score, which epitomizes the sounds of a traditional Christmas.
English SDH, French, German SDH, Italian SDH, Dutch, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Spanish, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Hungarian, Norwegian, Romanian and Swedish subtitles are available.
Legacy special features are included on the Blu-ray, as well as a redeemable digital code:
- You Look Familiar (SD, 4:11)
- A Genuine Ticket To Ride (SD, 13:32)
- True Inspirations: An Author’s Adventure (SD, 5:28)
- Behind the Scenes of “Believe” (SD, 4:24)
- Flurry of Effects (SD, 8:48)
- Smokey and Steamer (SD, 7:04)
- Josh Groban at the Greek (SD, 4:33)
- Meet The Snow Angels (SD, 2:44)
- Theatrical Trailer
- THQ Game Demo