POLAR EXPRESS, THE – Blu-ray review

The folks at Warner Bros. have been experimenting lately, offering all sorts of added incentives to tempt buyers into purchasing their products, things like digital copies and digital downloads, special-edition sets, Digibook packaging, game discs, holographic cover pictures, and even 3-D, which is the subject of our review. WB already released the regular 2-D version of “The Polar Express” in high definition on HD DVD and Blu-ray a while back, and the lure this time is 3-D. On a single, dual-layer BD50 the studio engineers offer the film in regular 2-D and in 3-D, both in Blu-ray high def. More about this development in a minute.

First, a few words about the movie and a word of explanation from your humble reviewer. “The Polar Express” is one of those computer animations that try to look as photorealistic as possible in their representations of the actual world. As a result, the humans appear almost but not quite real, like wax figures in a museum come to life. I’ve never understood this concept, which makes everyone look kind of creepy to me. If the studio figured to save money using the CGI animation technique as opposed to using live actors, saving money didn’t work. This 2004 production cost about $150,000,000 to make. If the filmmakers figured the animation would provide some visual treats we couldn’t otherwise get with live action, well, it doesn’t do any more than one of today’s comparable live-action CGI fantasies does. If director Robert Zemeckis hoped to open our minds better to the world of imagination, the movie does so at cross purposes. Would “Willy Wonka” or “Harry Potter” have been any better done in animation than in live action? I doubt it. When I finished watching “The Polar Express” the first time I saw it, I remember being left intrigued by the visuals but wondering why the filmmakers did it as a cartoon when they could have accomplished the same thing in live action without looking so…odd. Therefore, please, temper my remarks with this preliminary grousing in mind; and understand that the animation will probably not bother most anyone else.

Zemeckis based the movie on a short, illustrated children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. Zemeckis, as you know, is the fellow who gave us such spectacularly creative delights as “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Contact,” all of them filled with fascinating characters and glorious visual sights. In “Polar Express,” however, the director stretches (an unkinder soul would say bloats) a simple story idea with so many visual effects that some of the characters get rather lost in the proceedings.

The animation technique produces varied results. The scenery and surroundings are exquisite, imaginatively rendered in every detail, especially in high def, often looking like one of those Christmas globes with the snow swirling around inside; and from everything I can ascertain, the animation does a good job capturing the look and feel of the paintings in Van Allsburg’s book. It’s the people who inhabit this world who look artificial in a spooky sort of way. The filmmaking process that Zemeckis used requires live actors to perform their roles and then computer animators to duplicate their actions. It’s the modern equivalent of the early rotoscoping done by pioneer animators in the days of silent films. Although it’s quite a bit more advanced now, the basic idea is the same. What I always have to ask, though, is if live actors perform the parts, why not make it a live-action movie? What more does animation do to make something a fantasy? Is the mere act of watching drawings instead of real people oblige us to believe all the more in a film’s make-believe? Well, it may, and if it works for you, more power to the filmmaking.

The plot, what little there is of it, concerns a young boy at an age where he’s about to lose his belief in Santa Claus and the magic of Christmas. In this most crucial year of his life, the Polar Express, Santa’s personal train, shows up at his doorstep one Christmas Eve to convince him there really is a Santa. Other children of a similar age and with similar feelings of disbelief fill the train. From here, the movie offers a sweet and moving fable of regaining (or retaining) one’s faith in the Christmas spirit, as the boy learns to be kind to other people and never lose his power of imagination. No complaints here.

Tom Hanks stars in the movie, and stars in the movie, and stars in the movie. He is the voice behind most of the main characters, which works well for several reasons. First, he’s a fine actor and provides good voice characterizations for, among others, the boy’s father, the train conductor, a mysterious hobo, and Santa himself. Second, having Hanks voice so many of the characters makes it feel all the more like storybook time, as though one person alone were telling the tale; which, in fact is the case, as Hanks also voices the boy grown up, looking back on his own childhood.

I enjoyed the other characters voices as well, all of them ably, if not always so colorfully, voiced: Nona Gaye as a little girl that the boy befriends; Leslie Zemeckis as the boy’s sister Sarah; Peter Scolari as a shy, lonely boy; and, best of all, Eddie Deezen as an annoying, know-it-all kid. You’ll recognize Deezen’s distinctive voice instantly from things like “1941” and “WarGames.” He practically saves the day by being the most unique and entertaining voice of all the characters in the movie. Every time he appears, the movie livens up.

The action of the story takes places almost entirely on the train and then at the North Pole in a series of short episodes. These brief segments involve the boy in various adventures, none of which are particularly involving because of their brevity. After a somewhat slow start, the episodes begin to come along rather quickly, and it’s shortly afterwards that we realize there’s not going to be much more to it than that; nothing lasts long enough to develop much tension, and there aren’t many clear transitions between events to sustain an engrossing story line.

Zemeckis possibly intended the rapid succession of incidents to remind us of a child’s dream, because certainly it never induces us to believe the boy is awake while all this is going on. Nevertheless, I found my mind wandering at times, maybe indicating I’m not a child anymore.

Several of the segments have a rousing spirit, though, and they display a verve sometimes lacking in the rest of the film. There is a scene with dancing waiters and a song, “Hot Chocolate,” that comes alive in an energetic, Monty Pythonesque way; there’s a stunning shot of an eagle flying through a gorge that is lovely enough to frame; there’s a sequence with the train sliding down a roller-coaster track and then slipping sideways on an expanse of ice that is really quite harrowing; and there is a passage set in a roomful of puppets that is scary in the way only puppets and marionettes can be scary.

But offsetting these instances of beauty and excitement are too many songs that seem less than memorable (“Believe” being the main one); too much background music that tries to be uplifting and inspirational and comes off gushy; too much pacing that is awkward and herky-jerky; too much that should be surreal that only seems tedious; too much that is simply sentimental; and too little storyline to tie it all together.

The moviemakers might better have called the film “The Bipolar Express,” with so much that is sweet and light on the one hand and so much that is tiring and humdrum on the other. I liked the movie’s first half a lot; I found the second half going on and on rather slowly. Although I have no doubt most kids and many adults will love it, this Scrooge came away with somewhat mixed feelings.

My friend and fellow movie critic Eddie Feng and I once discussed two issues related to this film. Namely, (1) the inability of animators to realize fully the nuances of real human faces and (2) the relative ease in capturing animated characters on disc as compared to capturing the subtleties of human faces. The result is that “The Polar Express” looks more realistic than most animated movies but not quite realistic enough to pass for the real thing. Nevertheless, like it or not, it shows up gloriously in 2-D high definition.

However, since the disc contains both a 2-D and a 3-D version of the movie and since the 3-D is the main attraction here, let’s start with that format first, the special 3-D process rendered by Sony Pictures Imageworks. Because “The Polar Express” is one of the Wife-O-Meter’s favorite films, she was anxious to watch it in its new three-dimensional trappings. So, we dutifully put on the red-and-blue 3-D glasses and attempted to enjoy the picture. No dice. The same thing happened that I had experienced with previous 3-D films. I wear eyeglasses for distance, and the 3-D cardboard-and-cellophane frames would not fit comfortably over or under my regular glasses. I resorted to cutting one pair of 3-D glasses apart and taping them to my own glasses, but it still didn’t work. The 3-D glasses were always uncomfortable, and the 3-D picture was always out of focus, with quite a bit of ghosting going on. The Wife-O-Meter fared no better. She doesn’t wear glasses, but she has had her eyes surgically corrected, with one eye adjusted for reading and one for distance. She could never focus on the 3-D picture, always coming up with two different images slightly apart.

Worse still, in 3-D neither of us saw the brilliant colors we had become used to in the 2-D editions. Instead, we found a dull sheen, like a veil, over the hues. After fifteen or twenty minutes we both agreed to give up on the ghosting effects and the veiled colors, and we watched the movie in regular 2-D.

One could hardly fault any part of the Blu-ray 2-D presentation. The video engineers retained the movie’s 2.40:1 widescreen dimensions in a 1080p, VC-1 transfer that looks identical to the HD DVD encode. (An insider friend told me it is, indeed, the same encode.) The colors are deep and the overall focus is as sharp as it can be. More important, the colors are extremely natural (for a cartoon or for real life), rich and lush, with intense black levels. Believe me, like its HD-DVD counterpart, the Blu-ray picture is a joy to watch, and my Video rating below reflects my reaction to the 2-D version only.

If there is any improvement in the Blu-ray edition over the HD DVD, it is in the audio. Where the HD DVD used Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, the Blu-ray uses Dolby TrueHD, a genuine lossless codec. There is a tremendously deep, taut, room-shaking bass, combined with ultrawide dynamics for a sometimes awesome sonic experience. Just wait until Santa’s train thunders into your listening area. The effect is enough to rattle the rafters. The fact is, the disc’s TrueHD sound is just as good as the video, with an impact so strong it’ll blow your hair back. What’s more, the sound is clear and clean, with well-integrated dialogue and sonic effects. It’s an impressive soundtrack for an impressive audiovisual presentation.

Note: By default, the disc also includes a regular Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Remember to select TrueHD when you begin watching the film.

As I found with the previous SD and HD editions, the extras are only so-so, again with no audio commentary. I suppose Warners figure the main bonus items this time are the two movie formats, 2-D and 3-D, on the same disc, along with the four pairs of 3-D glasses.

The other extras begin with a four-minute segment, “You Look Familiar: The Many Polar Faces of Tom Hanks,” explaining why Hanks played so many roles in the film. Then there’s a five-minute bit, “True Inspirations: An Author’s Adventure,” profiling the work of author and artist Chris Van Allsburg; followed by four minutes taking us “Behind the Scenes of ‘Believe'” and into the recording studio.

After that, we find the main documentary, “A Genuine Ticket to Ride,” lasting about twenty-five minutes and covering the usual topics: “Performance Capture,” “Virtual Camera,” “Hair and Wardrobe,” “Creating the North Pole,” and “Music”; and a new “Flurry of Effects” gallery, about eight minutes of motion-capture sessions comparing the live-action preliminaries with the final animation; followed by four minutes of singer Josh Groban performing the song “Believe” at the Greek Theatre.

Finally, there are about two minutes of Christmas memories, “Meet the Snow Angels,” reminiscences from various of the filmmakers; plus a seven-minute, never-before-seen deleted musical scene with Smokey and Steamer, the train’s engineers; and a “THQ” PC game demo with two playable levels. The disc also has twenty-four scene selections; English, French, Spanish, and Dutch spoken languages; French, Spanish, and Dutch subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

A final added incentive: The keep case comes housed in a colorful slipcover with a 3-D holographic picture on the cover. Very attractive.

Parting Thoughts:
As a counterbalance to my curmudgeonly reactions, I would remind you that the Wife-O-Meter thinks very highly of this movie. She feels the stop-and-go action is much like the way a child thinks, the colors, excitement, and adventure are right up a child’s alley, the themes are moving, and the characters are fun. She has persuaded me that children should love it as much as she does. It undoubtedly is an enchanting movie for children, and it even began to grow on this cranky adult after the third or fourth viewing.

Now, indulge me a moment longer. Strangely, perhaps, I saw many similarities in this film and, of all things, Steven Spielberg’s “1941.” What’s that, you say? Yes, in the movie’s episodic construction, its fitful, irregular execution, its musical interludes and march music, its Eddie Deezen character, and its elaborate special effects, it reminded me of Spielberg; which may be no coincidence given that Zemeckis worked extensively with Spielberg early in his career and was a wizard at special effects. And like “1941” the sum of the many elements in “The Polar Express” don’t quite add up to as much as they should.

Nonetheless, as the Conductor says, “One thing about trains: It doesn’t matter where they’re going; what matters is deciding to get on.” If you can believe strongly enough, you can do anything or be anything you want. It’s hard to knock so winsome and earnest a notion, and even though neither the Wife-O-Meter nor I liked the 3-D version very much, we positively loved the Blu-ray’s 2-D picture and sound.

“The spirit of Christmas lies in your heart.”