DVD Movie Guide @ dvdmg.com
Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main


Robert Zemeckis
Tom Hanks, Leslie Harter Zemeckis, Eddie Deezen, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari
Writing Credits:
Chris Van Allsburg (book), Robert Zemeckis, William Broyles Jr.

This Holiday Season ... Believe.

A young boy's belief in Santa Claus is rewarded on Christmas Eve when he's awakened by a steam train whose conductor (Tom Hanks) pulls up in front of his house and takes him and other children on a magical journey to the North Pole.

Box Office:
$150 million.
Opening Weekend
$23.323 million on 3650 screens.
Domestic Gross
$162.753 million.

Rated G

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 100 min.
Price: $29.95
Release Date: 11/22/2005

• “You Look Familiar” Featurette (4:12)
• “A Genuine Ticket to Ride” Featurettes (1:58 intro 11:27 five-part)
• “True Inspiration: An Author’s Adventure” Featurette (5:29)
• “Josh Groban at the Greek” (4:32)
• “Behind the Scenes of ‘Believe’” Featurette (4:24)
• “Polar Express Challenge”
• “Meet the Snow Angels” (2:42)
• Game Demo
• Additional Song
• “Stocking Stuffers”
• Trailer


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


[an error occurred while processing this directive]

The Polar Express (2004)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 8, 2005)

With a few notable exceptions like the cynical Bad Santa, most Christmas movies shoot for a sense of magic and wonder. Not many of them achieve this, though, and it seems like the harder they try, the bigger they fail.

Add 2004’s The Polar Express to that list of clunkers. A massively expensive computer-animated fable based on Chris Van Allsburg’s 1985 book, Express desperately wants to enchant, but in the end, it only seems desperate.

On Christmas Eve, a 10-year-old boy (voiced by Daryl Sabara, acted by Tom Hanks) flirts with a disbelief in Santa Claus. After he nods off, something bizarre occurs: a locomotive steams up to his house. A conductor (Hanks) invites him to come with them to the North Pole. After a quick moment of refusal, the boy changes his mind and hops on the train.

There he befriends a girl (Nona Gaye) and assists another child (voiced by Jimmy Bennett, acted by Peter Scolari) who almost misses the train. The latter seems lonely and keeps himself apart from the others for much of the time. The film follows the train’s trip to the North Pole as well as adventures along the way and at the North Pole.

Will the boy meet Santa? Will his belief be restored? Will you stay awake? Yes, yes, and no. Express takes a 32-page illustrated book and expands it to a 100-minute movie with dull results. The movie features roughly 10 minutes of story and pads the running time to ridiculous extremes.

Really, it’s more of a theme park attraction than a feature film. At times I thought I was at Disneyland as I watched the stunts and activities. The movie boasts virtually no attempts to develop a narrative or characters. Instead, it leaps from one situation to another with abandon, and none of these connect to us.

The gimmicky animation and casting don’t help. Hanks portrays six roles and does the voice for all of those except the boy. Why? I have no idea. This doesn’t make the movie more effective in any manner, but I guess it looks exciting from a publicity point of view.

Express boasts extensive use of motion capture technology, so unlike a normal animated movie, the performers acted out the physical movements of the characters and they were adapted to the screen. I guess this isn’t tremendously different than rotoscoping, though it features more of a high-tech edge.

And it fails to succeed, though that gimmick isn’t the biggest problem with the animation. Instead, the decision to go for a fairly photo-real look to the characters is what kills it. All of the “humans” have a disturbingly plastic look to them. Their faces look like masks that always remain uncomfortably immobile and they never seem remotely real or convincing.

This means we always stay at a distance from them and the material. Given that this is a sentimental journey, that’s not a good thing. At no point does the story ever threaten to engage or move us since we’re so put off by the weird look of the characters. They’re stiff and creepy – that’s not a good recipe for an emotional holiday tale.

Frankly, I don’t understand filmmakers’ obsession with photo-real computer animation. Sure, it makes sense for movies like Jurassic Park where you really want to pass off the CG for something real, but Express is a cartoon. If you want the characters to look human, why not just film actors live? What’s the point of making cartoons look like real people? This robs animation of its charm and turns it into a pointless exercise in technology.

And that’s exactly what The Polar Express ends up being: one long gimmick with no reason to exist other than as a demo real for computer animation techniques. It lacks soul or heart, and even the technology doesn’t succeed, as the characters look so spooky that they distract us from the story. Express is a dull experiment and nothing more.

The DVD Grades: Picture A/ Audio B+/ Bonus C-

The Polar Express appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite my disdain for the movie itself, I can’t complain about this excellent transfer.

Sharpness always seemed immaculate. At no point did I discern any softness in this tight, well-defined image. It consistently appeared very crisp and detailed. No problems with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and I saw no signs of edge enhancement. Print flaws were a non-factor, as I never detected spots, specks, or other concerns.

Christmas movies usually come with suitably warm, glowing colors, and that was certainly the case with Express. Actually, they seemed somewhat restrained during the train sequences, but once it reached the North Pole, the hues jumped to life a little more actively. They consistently appeared rich and full. Blacks were deep and firm, while shadows came across as clear and appropriately opaque. No problems ever emerged in this gorgeous transfer.

While not quite so stunning, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Polar Express was quite satisfying. The soundfield got most of its zing from scenes onboard the train or at the North Pole. As I mentioned in the body of this review, the film resembled a theme park attraction. That was bad for the story but good for the soundscape, as it meant the more action-oriented scenes opened up the surrounds well. Those scenes allowed the material to zip and soar around us in a convincing manner.

Quieter sequences were fine. They exhibited a nice, natural sense of atmosphere and conveyed place in a workable way. Music also offered strong stereo delineation.

For the most part, audio quality succeeded. The only mild negative came from the sound of the movie’s occasional songs. Those tended to be a little thin and they lacked the range they needed.

Otherwise, the track was good. The score sounded bright and dynamic, while effects were distinctive and accurate. Both of those elements featured rich, deep bass. Speech was consistently natural and crisp, with no issues connected to intelligibility or distortion. I thought the mix wasn’t quite involving enough to reach “A” territory, but it was more than satisfactory.

For this two-DVD set, we get a mix of supplements. The sole component on DVD One comes from the film’s trailer; to my disappointment, no audio commentary appears.

That leaves DVD Two as the repository of most of the extras. Don’t expect a lot of substance from this surprisingly fluffy collection of materials. We start with a four-minute and 12-second featurette entitled You Look Familiar. This includes movie clips, behind the scenes materials, and comments from director/writer/producer Robert Zemeckis, actor/executive producer Tom Hanks and producer Steve Starkey. The piece discusses why Hanks ended up in so many parts and the challenges of doing so. We get a decent primer for Hanks’ work in the film but the program rushes through things so quickly that it doesn’t delve into anything with much substance.

Six bits make up A Genuine Ticket to Ride. This area opens with a one-minute and 58-second introduction and then gets into the five sections that last 11 minutes and 27 seconds all together. We hear from Zemeckis, Hanks, Starkey, senior visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston, composer Alan Silvestri, songwriter Glen Ballard, vocalist Josh Groban, and author/executive producer Chris Van Allsburg.

The segments break down into “Performance Capture”, “Virtual Camera”, “Hair and Wardrobe”, “Creating the North Pole” and “Music”. As you can infer from those titles, “Ticket” concentrates on the technical aspects of making the movie along with music. Ala “You Look Familiar”, it zips through the appropriate topics quickly. These add up to an enjoyable glimpse of the film’s creation, but I continue to wish we got something more elaborate and detailed. This is a kid-oriented package, though, so I suppose we have to accept superficial extras.

In that vein, we head to the five-minute and 29-second True Inspiration: An Author’s Adventure. This features notes from Van Allsburg. He chats about his childhood, his aptitude for art, how he got into writing, how he works, and inspirations for Express. Another good but too brief featurette, this one gives us adequate background about the author and nothing more. Sorry to repeat myself, but this too-short programs are getting frustrating.

A performance clip comes via Josh Groban at the Greek. In this four-minute and 32-second piece, the vocalist performers the tune “Believe” from the movie. It’s a sappy song and Groban’s a cloying performer. I’ll never watch this again!

More from the singer comes in the four-minute and 24-second Behind the Scenes of ‘Believe’. In addition to Groban, we hear from Ballard. We learn a little about the song’s creation and recording. It’s one of the less interesting parts of this DVD, as it mostly just talks about what a great tune they think “Believe” is.

For a game, we head to the Polar Express Challenge. It offers two very simple elements that will challenge only the youngest kids. That means it’s not much fun for anyone else.

A final featurette appears via Meet the Snow Angels. This two-minute and 42-second piece offers notes from Hanks, Zemeckis, Starkey, Van Allsburg, Groban, and actor Nona Gaye. They discuss their favorite holiday memories. Gaye’s is the only really interesting one, at least if you know who her father was.

We get a Game Demo for the Polar Express video game. This amounts to a quick trailer. The DVD’s case claims it comes with two playable levels, but if so, I couldn’t figure out how to access them.

An Additional Song comes next. Executive producer Jack Rapke introduces this deleted number and lets us know a little about it. Including his notes, this piece lasts seven minutes. It includes a lot more than just the tune, by the way, and it turns into a true deleted scene. It’s not particularly interesting but it’s a nice addition as a curiosity.

Finally, the disc includes five Stocking Stuffers. (I guess “Easter Egg” tied these features too strongly into another holiday.) For the first one, click “up” from “You Look Familiar” on the first screen. Hit “enter” to watch a 60-second clip in which we compare Hanks’ body acting with a final shot from the film.

Next, highlight “More” on the first screen, hit “left” and then “enter”. This gives us another snippet in which the body actors do their thing; it lasts two minutes, eight seconds. On the second screen, go “left” from “True Inspirations” to find more of the same; this clip runs two minutes, 50 seconds.

On the “Subtitles” menu, click “right” from “Francais” and hit “enter” for yet another of these pieces; it goes for 82 seconds. Finally, go “left” from “Play All” on the “A Genuine Ticket to Ride” page and hit “enter” for an 82-second clip. If you guessed that it showed more performance-to-final-film comparisons, you win! These are somewhat fun to see, though one or two would be enough; they get rather repetitive.

On many levels, I must regard The Polar Express as a disappointment. The movie uses high-tech elements in the worst way and ends up as creepy and soulless. The DVD presents excellent visuals and audio but really skimps on the extras; this is one of the least substantial two-disc sets I’ve seen. Avoid this terrible movie.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.5 Stars Number of Votes: 46
1 3:
View Averages for all rated titles.