Let me get this out of the way right now: I'm pretty sure kids will love The Polar Express, the full-length movie based on Chris Van Allsburg's beloved 32-page book. While I like to think that I still have an inner child, Robert Zemeckis's latest cinematic stunt gave me the wrong kind of chills. Using motion-capture CGI technology—live actors and cameras and reflective pellets and infrared capture receptors—Zemeckis has made a movie during which, every five minutes, the adults in the audience can tell themselves, "Ooh, that kind of looked real." As one of Tom Hanks's five characters says in the film, "Sometimes the most real things in the world are the ones we can't see."
Hanks provides the motion-capture performance (though not the voice) for Hero Boy, a child who has ceased to believe in Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, he awakes--or does he?--to the thundering sound of the Polar Express, which pulls up right outside his door. Invited on by a conductor ("performed" and voiced by Hanks), the boy meets some new chums, has video-game-styled adventures, and learns to believe again (sorry, gave away the ending). In a newfangled twist on Frank Morgan's work in The Wizard of Oz, Hanks also plays the boy's father, a hobo ghost, and a certain jolly old elf.
Of course, just about every children's film wants to (motion) capture The Wizard of Oz (Harry Potter and Willy Wonka also haunt this train and its destination), but The Polar Express has a bland doll in Hero Boy and repetitive roller-coaster theatrics for its adventure. Whenever the screenwriters--Zemeckis and William Broyles, Jr.--are in doubt, they add a roller-coaster pastiche or some skiing business or a slalom. Too little of the high-speed-travel action is inventive, though a winking exaggeration of Zemeckis's feather riff from Forrest Gump provides an "oooohhh"-worthy sequence.
When the loud, cluttery soundtrack slows down enough, we get John Williams twinkle from Zemeckis scorer Alan Silvestri, and a handful of original songs. The first, a horrifying ode to hot chocolate, gives off a certain flop-sweat desperation in its attempt to generate mirth. The animation of gravity-defying waiter-dancers dazzles, but Tom Hanks growling along with big-band brass, "Oh, we got it! So, we got it! Yo, we got it!" dampens the entertainment value. An artificially-sweetened duet between Hero Boy's two buddies, Hero Girl and Lonely Boy, fares better (Lonely Boy, by the way, is a euphemism for Poor Boy, but fear not: even he gets a happy ending).
Despite it all, the film's only fatal failing is its inability to make any of the characters seem real. Most of them are downright creepy in their doll-like inexpressiveness. Yes, they approximate the actions and expressions of Tom Hanks, but only in the most plasticine way (not to mention Hero Boy's lack of bedhead, and absence of muss after a tumble in a coal pile). The Polar Express succeeds in fits and starts--some excitement is generated in the pursuit of a golden ticket--but only finds itself in its half-hour-long ending, in which the children infiltrate the secret machinery of Christmas. Ultimately, the ever-gear-shifting film resembles the Conductor's remark about Santa's multitudinous elves: "Well-oiled machine." I'm just an old-fashioned humanoid kind of guy, so sue me.
From Warner comes a 3-D presentation of The Polar Express on Blu-ray and DVD. Blu-ray viewers can choose between a perfect high-def 2-D transfer and a high-def anaglyph (red/blue) 3-D version of the film, viewable through one of 4 pairs of 3-D glasses included in the case. Anyone who's ever donned a pair of red/blue 3-D glasses knows that high-def's razor-sharpness isn't to be expected from the 3D image here: more to the point is the 3-D effect itself. On Blu-ray, the 3-D transfer replicates all of the eyepopping theatrical 3-D effects in a downscaled version (don't hold your breath for full-color polarized 3-D on your home screen). The 2-D transfer delivers on the sharpness and detail to which we're accustomed in the high-def format, while staying true to the slightly misty visual approach of Van Allsburg and Zemeckis. It's a spotless, detailed image that well serves the painterly animated film. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio mix pumps a great deal of excitement into the experience, with the many train effects and large choruses carefully separated for an immersive experience.
"You Look Familiar" (4:11) allows Tom Hanks, producer Steve Starkey, and director Robert Zemeckis to explain how Hanks came to play five characters, using motion-capture technology. "A Genuine Ticket to Ride" (11:12 with "Play All" option) begins with an optional "Intro" (2:05) with kid characters introducing the behind-the-scenes segments and Hanks and Zemeckis explaining the starting point for the product. The kid-friendly making-of featurettes cover "Performance Capture," "Virtual Camera," "Hair and Wardrobe," "Creating the North Pole," and "Music," with B-roll clips, movie clips, and interview snippets.
"True Inspirations: An Author's Adventure" (5:29) focuses on author-illustrator's Chris Van Allsburg's upbringing and artistic process. "Behind the Scenes of 'Believe'" (4:24) interviews songwriter Glen Ballard and singer Josh Groban about the film's signature musical piece.
The "Flurry of Effects" section (8:48 with "Play All" option) offers split screen comparisons of the mo-cap acting sessions and the finished scene. In this way, one can watch Hanks act with himself, in live-action (since multiple takes are edited together via split screen). The scenes are "All Aboard," "Hot Chocolate," "Hobo on Top of Train," "I Believe," and "Goodbye."
"Additional Song" (7:04) is a rough deleted sequence with the characters of Smokey and Steamer singing "It Takes Two," introduced by executive producer Jack Rapke. As Rapke explains, the sequence stands as testament to the late Michael Jeter, who played both characters. "Josh Groban at the Greek" (4:33) is a live Groban performance of "Believe."
"Meet the Snow Angels" (2:44) asks Hanks, Zemeckis, Starkey, Van Allsburg, Groban, and Nona Gaye to recall their warmest Christmas memories. Lastly, the disc includes a "Theatrical Trailer" (1:02) and "THQ Game Demo" (:32).
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