When "The Polar Express" was released, it was one of the first films to employ Performance Motion Capture. Actors wore latex suits with little dots all over them and their faces to record every movement, which was transferred to computers as virtual skeletons to which skin, features, and clothing were added. In 2004, "Mo Cap" was cutting edge, and if groundbreaking CG effects were enough to win an Oscar for an otherwise so-so film like "Titanic," the sophisticated animation and holiday theme will probably be enough to keep "The Polar Express" in the annual Christmas rotation.
On Blu-ray, the animation looks especially amazing. But heartwarming it's not.
There's something about the Mo-Cap figures that seems not just a little cold, but a little creepy as well. While we watch in amazement at the movement and rendering of character, we're always conscious that we're watching a process on display rather than getting emotionally caught up in the characters. Because the adults have wrinkles or stubble they seem more textured and therefore more natural, but Santa and the children have smooth and reflective faces that look more like wax than real skin.
For a Christmas movie there are some pretty creepy scenes and characters, too . . . and Tom Hanks plays all of them. That's the other amazing thing about this film, though. If you thought "Cast Away" was a tour de force, in "The Polar Express" Hanks plays the part of the hero boy who wants to believe in Santa Claus, the boy's father (a perfectly animated likeness of Hanks), the conductor on the train that transports children on a faith-boosting excursion to the North Pole, a ghost-like hobo (the creepiest) who camps on top of the train, a Scrooge puppet, and even Santa himself. On one short bonus feature Hanks called the film "ridiculously challenging, but in a good way."
Director Robert Zemeckis ("Back to the Future," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit") teams up with his favorite actor Hanks again, but "Forrest Gump" (1994) and "Cast Away" (2000) were collaborations that are tough to top. You get the feeling that they may have been looking to hit one out of the park with Mo-Cap and Hanks' six voices, but the expansion of Chris Van Allsburg's popular children's picture book from 38 pages to a 100-minute screenplay just doesn't retain the same level of magic. Basically, a boy who doubts the existence of Santa hops on a train that rumbles past his house on Christmas Eve. On board are other children who need a renewal of faith. They get to the North Pole, but because so many scenes seemed inserted to showcase what the animators could do (like a bizarre, high-energy "Hot Chocolate" song sung by waiters, or a long scene involving a lost ticket that floats like the feather in "Forrest Gump." Most of what was added to the Van Allsburg book are action sequences or things that, when you think about them, really have little to do with the main plot.
There are moments of peril in this film, with a runaway train providing the most action. But the animation throughout has been so spectacular and so consciously on a viewer's mind that when Santa appears and we see the Pole, it doesn't seem nearly as magical as we might have imagined.
While Hanks handles most of the main characters, the other ones that we spend time with is an African-American "hero" girl (Nona Gaye), a "know-it-all" (Eddie Deezen), and the engineers (Michael Jeter). As I said, there's nothing all that warm about any of them, due to the peculiar nature of Performance Motion Capture, which strives to create an animated version of real people but ends up falling somewhere in the cracks between animation and live-action. It's a technique to be admired, and what Zemeckis and Hanks do with this film is technically amazing. I just don't think it's going to warm many hearts or roast any chestnuts.
"The Polar Express" is a dark film in many places, so HD is a real boon. The picture looks sharper and richer in 1080p, with full color saturation and especially strong black levels to pick up every little texture and detail. Mo-Cap lends itself particularly well to the kind of pleasing 3-dimensionality that HD offers. The picture is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
The audio, however, is nothing special--not even a HD soundtrack. It's a simple Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. With that disclaimer aside, the sound quality on the DVD was quite good, and so is this. There's a nice spread across the front speakers and good use of the rear effects speakers that you notice especially when the train is careening out of control and you get deep rumbling bass notes and screeching treble. But it's an atypical, return-to-basics soundtrack for a Blu-ray release.
The bonus features are mostly teasers. "You Look Familiar: The Many Polar Faces of Tom Hanks" explains how Hanks came to play so many roles, while "True Inspirations: An Author's Adventure" showcases children's book author Chris Van Allsburg (whose 38-page story formed the basis for the film), and "Behind the Scenes of 'Believe'" focuses on the recording studio sessions. None of these features is longer than five minutes, and all of them leave you wanting more.
The making-of feature ("A Genuine Ticket to Ride") is also short compared to other releases, clocking in at under a half hour. But at least we get the behind-the-scenes dope on "Performance Capture," "Virtual Camera," "Hair and Wardrobe," "Creating the North Pole," and "Music." Glen Ballard reveals that the movie itself inspired the song "Believe." Rounding out the extras are more short sets, including a "Flurry of Effects" gallery that highlights five Mo-Cap sessions, VERY brief memories in "Meet the Snow Angels: The Moviemakers' Christmas Memories" that's as short a feature as I've seen, a Josh Groban "Believe" performance at the Greek Theatre, and a seven-minute musical scene with the train's engineers. Of these, the Mo-Cap sessions is most worthwhile, with the "Smokey and Steamer" song a curiosity and the principals talking about their holiday memories
Given the pioneering nature of the Performance Motion Capture in this film, it's surprising there's no commentary track, and no extended interview with Hanks and/or Zemeckis. As is, the extras are underwhelming.
Like "Titanic," "The Polar express is a CGI marvel, but the characters are about as warm as the setting. That keeps it in the "good but not great" category. As John J. Puccio wrote in his review, this film reportedly cost $150 million to make. I'm just not sure that the payoff is that rich.