DVD - Image A Sound A- Extras C
BD - Image A Sound A Extras C
screenplay by Robert Zemeckis & William Broyles Jr., based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg
directed by Robert Zemeckis
by Walter Chaw Robert Zemeckis's The Polar Express seems to be the culmination of a lot of his weird obsessions: his celebration of middle-class Aryan heroes; his tendency towards the tense and anxious; his love of casting an actor in multiple roles; Tom Hanks; Eddie Deezen; and that subtle quality of nightmare that infects even the most innocuous of his movies. (Zemeckis produces horror films in his spare time under the "Dark Castle" imprint; I wonder if he'll ever, What Lies Beneath notwithstanding, just cut the bushwah and make a straight shocker.) When Christopher Lloyd's Nazi-esque Judge Doom from Zemeckis's Who Framed Roger Rabbit "dips" an adorable animated shoe into a corrosive sludge, Zemeckis foreshadows the engine that drives all of The Polar Express. It's infernal entertainment and comparisons to Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will are unavoidable (particularly in a disturbing rally scene), but it's hard to know how much of that intense martial creepiness is intended as satire, and how much of it is just what lies beneath.
The story proper follows an unbeliever on Christmas Eve. A boy (voiced by Tom Hanks) has reached that nebulous age when his belief in Santa Claus (Tom Hanks) is on the wane, and so he needs to be browbeaten like some Dickensian stooge by the realm of the fantastical into toeing the Judeo-Christian party line. Enter the titular train, which picks up kids afflicted with a variety of milquetoast maladies and ferries them to the North Pole for an audience with Dur Fuhrer Claus in a North Pole that looks suspiciously like Nuremberg. The Conductor (Tom Hanks, remember him?) acts as a sort of Joel Grey master of ceremonies, presiding in one of the film's many disquieting sequences over an octet of automaton waiters frenetically force-feeding hot chocolate to the pyjama'd passengers. (Hanks also voices a ghostly, Tom Waits-ian boxcar hobo and the boy's half-seen father.) The casting begs the read that in the heart of every boy is his father yearning to break free--and that a boy will project the image of his father onto every single authority figure who enters into his life. As revelations go, it's pretty shrug-worthy.
That's the problem with and the strength of The Polar Express: It's terrifying to no end--and existentially absurd for no profit. The force-feeding of the hot chocolate parrots the force-feeding of Christmas to a nation of youngsters, while an in-film reference to Scrooge (Tom Hanks) during a terrifying "dead" marionette sequence works to both whip up the believers challenged by an old man who wants to be left alone and inflame the non-believers who will see darker aspects of The Polar Express as confirmation of the black intentions of what's become of Christmas. Consider the industrial nightmare of the film's North Pole: cavernous, abandoned, with Bing Crosby echoing through the empty spaces with a sepulchral gravity. (Real chills crawl up the spine when the record skips.) As the boy and his friends (Nona Gaye and Peter Scolari, the latter reunited with his Bosom Buddy Hanks) explore the North Pole complex of the mighty Claus, there emerges the idea that The Polar Express owes a debt equally to William Blake and Fritz Lang. Tyger, tyger loose in Metropolis.
The motion-capture technology that Zemeckis employs for the film is essentially just a tricked-up version of Ralph Bakshi's rotoscoping from three decades ago. It's so realistic that it begs the question of why they didn't just use live actors--unless Zemeckis decided that he'd already gone over that ground in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Knowing that Zemeckis is a notorious perfectionist, his attraction digital environments with digitized actors is obvious, but the result of him having complete control over the piece finds the performers' humanity (Zemeckis is best when using approachable actors like Hanks and Michael J. Fox) sacrificed at the feet of the almighty megabyte. What's interesting is that this year finds two dead thespians, Laurence Olivier in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Michael Jeter in The Polar Express, resurrected via mainframe. At some point, long about the time the Express finds its way to the pole and one child, horrified/excited, exclaims "Elves!", the picture's electronic phantoms, responding with ecstasy with the arrival of and every edict from their leader, begin to look like the wind-up toy goose-stepping of Riefenstahl's sturmabteilungen.
The Polar Express is a fascinating failure. The images are indelible, as much credit for that due to the dry, twisted children's fandangos of author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg (upon whose book the film is based) as Zemeckis, but the aggregate is less mysterious and melancholy than it is alternately horrifying and irritating. There's an unbecoming desperation to the piece, no more so than in the bad miscalculation of a know-it-all kid voiced by the insufferable Deezen. The film feels aggressive--at times, it borders on abrasive. Though there seems to be some profit in looking at the piece as a strident text attacking this country's yuletide ritual, the experience of watching it is so unpleasant that no matter how much I wanted to like it (and I wanted to like it a lot), The Polar Express left me cold. More than a theoretical exercise, it's a technical one: Zemeckis showing off. And the victim of all that digital tinkering is any kind of warmth in the boiler. Originally published: November 10, 2004.
by Bill Chambers A great 3-D experience trapped in a 2-D vessel everywhere outside of IMAX auditoriums, The Polar Express makes a stop on DVD in a 2.38:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation (fullscreen sold separately) one presumes from the absence of grain is a direct-to-digital port. By the same token, the image lacks the plasticity that sometimes befalls CG-based productions at home; expect something on the order of a Pixar transfer. Given director Robert Zemeckis's track record, it's not surprising that the accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is powerhouse--especially fond of the subwoofer-driven introduction to the titular locomotive, which creates a wonderful illusion of mass. That being said, considering the Superbit-style dedication of an entire platter to The Polar Express (with the exception of the film's theatrical trailer), shame they couldn't've accommodated a DTS track.
The paltry extras of the second disc break down as follows:
You Look Familiar (4 mins.)
What a boring set. Here we enumerate the spectrum of characters in a MoCap-dot-encrusted Tom Hanks's repertoire. Repeat: What a boring set--just a warehouse full of gym mats, like a place for physiotherapy. Hanks says he agreed to essay multiple roles after "Bob explained his reasons," but our only hint of what those reasons might be arrive in the form of Zemeckis likening the Hanks-as-everyone conceit to The Wizard of Oz.
A Genuine Ticket to Ride (2 mins.)
An introduction to the next section narrated in-character, like the forthcoming featurettes, by Leslie Zemeckis and Eddie Deezen. Yes, keep the Excedrin handy.
Performance Capture (2 mins.)
How's this for semantics? The Polar Express isn't live-action, but it isn't animation, either. No, it's "animated reality." Amazing how un-rock-god-like Steven Tyler looks in a performance-capture suit.
Virtual Camera (2 mins.)
Virtual camera is what's known as "phase two," wherein a real cinematographer wields a real camera on a virtual soundstage. Probably the most revelatory segment, but disappointingly insubstantial all the same.
Hair and Wardrobe (2 mins.)
Hanks and co. spent a grand total of fifteen minutes apiece in costume. (That's the length of time it took for the computer to perform a full body scan.) Zemeckis notes that at one point textures were so lifelike they decided to bring the detail down a notch.
Creating the North Pole (2 mins.)
Chris Van Allsburg, author and illustrator of The Polar Express, briefly talks about rejecting the "chalet" cliché of the North Pole.
Music (3 mins.)
Banal discussion of the film's banal songs.
True Inspirations: An Author's Adventure (5 mins.)
Van Allsburg returns to provide an in-depth account of his Grand Rapids upbringing, his previous career as a sculptor (the sampling of his portfolio is breathtaking), and his relationship with the muse. Unfortunately the DVD's producers have something different in mind. Nevertheless, I hope the kids at whom these supplements are obviously pitched give this one a look-see, as Van Allsburg implores emerging artists to probe their own experiences for inspiration rather than copy what they see on TV or at the movies. That's especially good advice in this era of the pastiche artist.
Josh Groban at the Greek (5 mins.)
FILM FREAK CENTRAL at the skip button.
Behind-the-Scenes of "Believe" (4 mins.)
Polar Express Challenge
A set-top, "Simon"-style challenge in which your mad memory skillz help navigate the Polar Express across a frozen lake.
THQ Game Demo
Not a "demo," per se, but a commercial for the multi-platform Polar Express videogame.
Additional Song (7 mins.)
Producer Jack Rapke dedicates this deleted duet between Smokey and Steamer to the late Michael Jeter, who played both. The number was excised early enough in post that it never made it past the "Michelin Man" stage of animation.
Meet the Snow Angels (3 mins.)
Not sure what that title has to do with the content of this piece, in which Hanks, Zemeckis, producer Steve Starkey, Allsburg, and actress Nona Gaye sentimentally recall their favourite Christmases. Originally published: November 30, 2005.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner finally brings the 3-D version of The Polar Express home in this Blu-ray release, which incidentally also marks the picture's next-gen debut in hi-res audio. Alas, unlike the IMAX incarnation of the film, it utilizes the archaic anaglyph format, which does more to lessen the effectiveness of the 3-D illusion than does the reduction in screen size. Since the red/blue lenses dim the image like sunglasses, an insert recommends setting your HD monitor's brightness to "standard," but there remains the side effect of desaturation, robbing a most colourful film of one of its best features. And whereas in IMAX, the whole thing is a damn near religious experience, here the transcendent moments are fleeting and far between, with the ticket's journey in chapter 5 and the shuttle to Santa's workshop in chapter 15 being two resilient highlights. Thankfully, the studio has seen fit to include the 2-D version as well, although, somewhat annoyingly, you can't toggle back and forth between them without starting the movie again from scratch. Both are presented in immaculate 2.40:1, 1080p transfers that favour Pixar softness over the hard sheen of DreamWorks' animated output. A much more uncanny approximation of the film's IMAX exhibition, the attendant 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track produces seismic events at regular intervals, thus enhancing the terror of this horror movie in disguise. (And even collapsed to 640 kbps, the DTHD option outshines the DD 5.1 alternative.) As for extras, the DVD's supplementary material has been recycled in standard definition; four pairs of 3-D glasses come packaged inside the keepcase. Originally published: October 29, 2008.