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Polar Express 3DThe Polar Express 3D on Blu-ray

by Jim Bray
November 4, 2008
Updated December 16, 2008 with readers' comments at bottom.
Updated again December 21, 2008 with comments about a subsequent viewing of the 3D on a smaller screen, with slightly improved results.

Every child hits the point in life at which he begins to doubt the existence of Santa Claus.

In The Polar Express, our protagonist has hit that very point. He’s lying awake in bed as his parents whisper to each other about Santa coming to town. Santa can’t be real, the boy thinks, because he’d have to travel at the speed of light on a sleigh larger than an ocean liner in order to do what he does. And if he can do that, why would he need people to play him at every local shopping mall?

So our hero is slightly alarmed when he hears some noises. It’s not the noises you would expect: sleigh bells, reindeer, and a jolly “ho ho ho.” No, it’s the sounds of a steam locomotive, for some reason stopping directly in front of his house. He steps outside, and sure enough, a train sits on a previously unnoticed set of tracks in the middle of his street, with a man resembling Tom Hanks standing just to the side.

“This is The Polar Express” the man, the train's conductor, exclaims and mentions that it’s headed for the North Pole. In such a case, it’s difficult to imagine anyone’s curiosity not outweighing his cynicism. The boy gets on, and meets several other children in the same boat (or on the same train, if you will).

But The “PoleEx” is not an ordinary train. This is a magical train and it brings a series of adventures to the children, including the steepest downhill run in the world, and a lake of ice frozen over sections of the tracks. This may just be the most exciting trip to the North Pole ever. And who knows, maybe some of these children will have their yuletide faith rekindled.

The Polar Express was filmed in 3D IMAX with “motion capture technology,” the latter of which basically makes an entire film out of what Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis (and Weta Digital) did for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. All of the actors, and everything else for that matter, is done over by some wonderful computer animation. It’s a breathtaking spectacle that's opening up a whole new way of making movies - as Zemeckis' Beowulf continues to show.

And what a Christmas movie this is! More kid-than-adult-friendly, the film is chock full of Christmas lessons and messages as simple as simply believing. But it doesn’t punch you in the face with moral ideals about always having to be with your family or loving everything. It simply states that as long as you believe, the magic of the season will do the rest.

It ignores the religious aspects of Christmas completely, concentrating on the secular Santa legend - and it kind of glosses over the family, festive aspects, but this is chiefly a Santa Claus story.

Robert Zemeckis has crafted a wonderful holiday tale that can be enjoyed by the whole family. The song-and-dance numbers seem a little formulaic , but I suppose that when you spend $160 million on a film, you want it to reach as many demographics as possible.

The animation in The Polar Express is truly breathtaking. There are certain shots that you’d swear were real, but most of the time it’s a beautiful blend of real-life and animation, giving a greater feeling of fantasy.

This is the kind of film that will go down in history as a classic Christmas tale. Like The Grinch, A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, The Polar Express will be run in syndication every year from now until Christmas becomes unpopular. It’s no Grinch (the animated version, which is sone of our all time Christmas favorites), but it’s a pretty darn good little holiday movie that gives your eyes and your imagination a little jump.

This 3D version is the second Blu-ray release of the film and I was looking forward to it almost as much as any other Blu-ray title. The reason is because I saw the film in 3D IMAX and it absolutely blew me away. The high resolution IMAX image coupled with the 3D technology turned an already great movie into the most exquisite theatrical experience I had seen in many, many years. I generally avoid movie theaters, but the 3D IMAX technique convinced me to give it a try, and it paid off in spades.

The 3D gave you a rollicking ride on such scenes as the roller coaster-type rides following the blowing ticket, up and down the mountains, and through the North Pole, but even more subtle effects were marvelous, such as the gentle snowflakes falling outside our hero's home, which seemed so real I felt as if I could stick out my tongue and the flakes would land there.

Extraordinary!

Naturally, I couldn't wait for the 3D Blu-ray. Would they be able to recreate that experience on my 106 inch Epson projector-fed screen?

Before I answer that, let me tease you with some other info about this release. Warner Brothers has included both regular and 3D versions on the single Blu-ray, the disc defaulting to 2D if you don't choose the 3D version. They've also upgraded the audio track from the original BD release's "old style" Dolby Digital 5.1 to the new, high resolution Dolby TrueHD, and while I still think the volume's a tad low it's appreciably better than the original release.

The disc also comes with four pairs of 3D glasses, which is a very good thing. They're the red/blue "lens" type instead of the apparently polarized ones of the IMAX theater, a fact that raised some nagging doubts in me before I fired up the disc.

Then I fired it up, hoping the 3D Blu-ray would knock off my socks. And it didn't.

The 3D is quite good in places, with a very nice third dimension in evidence. But, perhaps because you're using colored filters to help create the 3D image in your brain, I noticed colored fringing, mostly red, in every scene, as well as a distinct lack of the beautifully rich colors and textures of the 2D version. And while there were a couple of shots that seemed to reach out toward me, most of the 3D seemed to extend backward instead of forward, giving the illusion that my screen was a window onto a 3D world behind it. It was interesting, but not nearly as WOW! as the IMAX incarnation.

What was perhaps worse was that the 3D was really, really hard on both my and my wife's eyes. She had to take off the glasses periodically during the film's 100 minute running time, while I (being a MAN!) stuck it out right to the end despite a nearly overwhelming urge to close my eyes for a couple of minutes. But though I made it to the final shot of the story, the instant the first of the closing credits appeared the glasses were whisked off with gusto.

Which makes the 3D an interesting toy but by no means even close to being the best way to watch The Polar Express on Blu-ray.

Later, we tried watching it again on a smaller screen which effectively moved us farther away. It worked better this way (except for having to watch it on a smaller screen!), with slightly better 3D and less strain on our eyes. It still wasn't close to the IMAX experience, though, and in the end I still prefer the 2D version for home theater viewing.

Fortunately, the 2D version looks fabulous, and on its own is probably the closest to watching in 3D without being 3D. It's beause the 1080p picture, presented in 2.4:1 anamorphic widescreen, looks positively stunning. Detail is sharp, colors are glorious and the disc exhibits that wonderful "depth" that almost makes the movie seem to have a third dimension. It's a common phenomenon with the Blu-ray medium and a good home theater, and it's extremely compelling.

Perhaps the ideal way to watch the movie would be to save the 3D for your favorite scenes, and save your eyesight by sticking with the regular version for the rest. The only problem here is that switching from one version to the other dumps you back to the beginning, which kind of sucks.

Extras include "Smokey and Steamer Song,"" You Look Familiar: the Many Polar Faces of Tom Hanks," 5 short featurettes on the gestation of this remarkable film, and a profile of Chris Van Allsburg, the author of the book on which the film is based. You also get Josh Groban performing the end title song, "Flurry of Effects", which consists of five motion capture sessions, "Snow Angels" (the filmmakers reminisce about Christmas) and the trailer.

So while, reluctantly, I can't recommend the 3D version, I recommend this new version wholeheartedly; the 2D version looks spectacular, and the audio has been upgraded nicely from the first BD release.

The Polar Express, from Warner Home Entertainment
100 minutes, anamorphic widescreen (2.4:1), Dolby Digital 5.1
Starring Tom Hanks
Produced by Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Gary Goetzman, William Teitler
Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis & William Broyles, Jr., Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Reader feedback, December 16, 2008: "I saw this movie in a few years ago a couple years after the initial release but presented in 3d. I was exited about being able to experience it in my living room once again with my kids. I am so dissaponted with what i got. The 3d used is the old red and blue glasses, and even when you put the glasses on you still have double vision. All in all its a great movie, don't bother with the 3d version, and if you already have the original dvd, just watch it upscale, the quality of the BD and the upscaled regular dvd is pretty much the same."

"I had the same problems until I turned the glasses upside down. The problem is that the lens are reversed. Try it and you'll be amazed. " (Editor's note: we tried reversing out glasses and it made no difference to our viewing).

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