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The Polar ExpressThe Polar Express

Every child hits that point in their lives at which they begin to doubt the existence of Santa Claus.

In The Polar Express, our unnamed 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 perpetual “ho ho ho.” No, it’s the sounds of a train, for some reason stopping directly in front of the 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 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 their 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 decline 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 with “motion capture technology,” which basically makes an entire film out of what Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis did for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. All of our actors, and everything else for that matter, is done over by some wonderful computer animation. It’s a breathtaking spectacle that likely wouldn’t have worked as well for anything but a Christmas movie.

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.

Robert Zemeckis has crafted a wonderful holiday tale that, while it won’t appeal as much to adults, cana be enjoyed by the whole family. The song-and-dance numbers seem a little too formulaic for our tastes, but when you spend $160 million on a film, you want it to reach as many demographics as possible.

Like Final Fantasy, 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 perfect 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, but it’s a pretty darn good little holiday movie that gives your eyes and your imagination a little jump.

The DVD presentation is pretty darn good, as well. Available in single and two-disc sets, we fortunately received the latter. Picture is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and looks positively stunning. The slightest imperfection would be visible in front of the animation and bright colors, but we noticed not a single flaw. Everything looks glorious down to the finest detail.

The audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1, and it’s also a glorious achievement. The dialogue is crystal clear, the surrounds are used quite well and frequently, and the volume doesn’t fluctuate too much (which seems to be an increasing problem these days).

Now we get into the problem with this two-disc set. While we’ve never claimed to be geniuses, it seems to us that every one of the supplements on disc two could have easily been fit onto disc one, especially considering there’s no audio commentary or anything. To put it midly, this is a pretty disappointing set of extras.

Right off the bat, we get a four-minute featurette introducing the technology and letting us know how Tom Hanks felt about the experience. Then, a two-minute introduction takes us through 5 more featurettes totaling just over 11 minutes. They touch upon costumes, music, visual effects and so on, but they all have a bit of a twist because the film is CGI. It’s some interesting stuff, but way too short.

Next we briefly meet Chris Van Allburg, the author of the book on which the film is based. After that we move into Josh Groban performing the end title song and a behind-the-scenes featurette for it. There is an interactive game, a short piece that has the filmmakers recalling Christmas memories, and a song that didn’t make it into the final cut. It’s presented with some pretty rough animation, but we learn a bit more about the hobo that haunts the train.

Oh, and disc one has the trailer.

The Polar Express, from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
100 minutes, anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) 16x9 enhanced, 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


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Updated May 5, 2010