The Polar Express (Two-Disc Widescreen Edition) Review
It is Christmas Eve and a young boy lies awake listening out for the ringing of sleigh bells to announce the arrival of Santa Claus. But doubts are creeping in as slowly and as surely as the snow falls outside. A book of cuttings from newspapers slyly hint at there not being a real Santa, the milk and cookies remain uneaten, the red hat in his father's pocket is an old thing that anyone with a dollar could buy and his parents whisper about the magic of Christmas being over for their son, unaware that he is still awake. The boy so wants to believe but it's hard when so much of Christmas winks to say that it's all but a myth.
But as the lights in the house go out, a mysterious train arrives outside and the warm glow from the windows of its carriages light up the boy's room. Going outside in his nightgown and slippers, he is asked by the conductor to hop aboard and, for a moment, almost refuses, only jumping on as the train picks up speed. He's soon glad that he did, though, as the conductor announces that the train is the Polar Express and, with only one more stop, will soon be on its way to its final destination - the North Pole, where Santa awaits its arrival to give one lucky child the first gift of Christmas. Getting there isn't so easy, though, with a ticket to hold on to, a terrifying drop through a deep ravine, a frozen lake and a ghostly hobo who might be doing more than playing with the boy when he laughs off Santa being real...
Ask yourself what you know about The Polar Express and the first thing you answer with will doubtless be the odd animation that, to some, leaves the cast looking particularly lifeless, their glassy eyes looking almost too perfect to be human. It's one of the odd paradoxes about human animation that the closer one gets to reality, the more unreal it looks. Seemingly, we prefer to see caricatures of ourselves rather than an attempt to emulate the real thing. And so, despite a blizzard of advertising on television and in the cinemas, The Polar Express enjoyed a success that built steadily between its original release date in mid-November 2004 and Christmas of that year, quite unlike the frenetic takings at the box office that one now associates with the release of blockbusters. Unfortunately, there really is no way to offer a true glimpse of how startling and frequently wonderful the animation is other than in words. For once, the screenshots really do not do this film justice, appearing as lifeless as the actual film has been reputed to be when, in fact, the movie sparkles like the instant Christmas classic that it is.
The joy of the film is in its sticking to the children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, which sees a boy's faith in Santa confirmed by a magical trip on the Polar Express to the North Pole, where the gift of a sleigh bell will be a constant reminder to the boy of his visit to Santa, even as he grows up and older. In a sweet, carefully considered nod to children, who surely wonder why their parents are not equally blessed by gifts on Christmas morning, the bell can only be heard by those who still believe, sounding quite silent to those who don't. It should be remembered that Van Allsburg wasn't reaching out to very young children, despite how well they received his book and, later, this film. Instead, Van Allsburg was looking to catch the attention of slightly older children, those, say, aged eight or nine, who are caught in the years in which questions about Santa first arise. As such, the characters in his book have a realistic appearance, which was surer to appeal to its target age group than, say, the cartoon characters of Olive, The Other Reindeer that attracts a much younger audience.
Any questions, though, about how Van Allsburg's characters have come to the screen are answered almost as soon as The Polar Express begins and that they have been animated quite wonderfully, with a richness to them and to their surroundings that simply could not have been replicated in live action. The scene, for example, in which waiters burst through the doors of the train carriage to serve hot chocolate is so frenetic that animation was surely the only way of bringing it to the screen, not least in ensuring how the drink leaps out of the chocolate pot and into the cups spinning on the tables. Similarly, and this is one of the most dazzlingly inventive scenes in the film, a golden ticket is followed on a little adventure through the snow and air, over a waterfall and in an eagle's claw before it flutters back along the train tracks into the carriage on the Polar Express from where it was first dropped. It's a superb, marvellously realised little aside that plays no part in the film other than to make one's eyes widen at the wonder of it all, which it does effortlessly.
If there's a fault with the film, then it's that The Polar Express drags in the middle with Robert Zemeckis feeling the need to expand upon Chris Van Allsburg's short story with a ghostly hobo who pricks at the young boy's doubts about Santa. Similarly, characters who were only shadows in the background in the book, including a young girl, a lonely boy who would rather sit on his own in the train that with the other children and a know-it-all were given much more prominence here, not always for the better. A scene with the two drivers of the Polar Express and their losing of a pin feels like one farce too far whilst a trip through Santa's factory on a conveyor belt isn't quite as magical as it ought to have been, which may have much to do with the rather officious elves who appear to staff the place. Lastly, casting Steven Tyler as an elf who celebrates the disappearance of Santa's sleigh into the night sky with an Aerosmith-inspired piece of Christmas rock was a nasty piece of pop culture in a film that really didn't need it, particularly when a burst of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town had already sprinkled the tinsel and snow into the North Pole with consummate ease.
These, though, are only small complaints in a film that's a joy from beginning to end, leaving its audience warmed from within. There are, though, sad little moments throughout, such as the moment that the lonely kid returns home - you suspect this Christmas will be the only one that he'll remember as not being cold and dreary in the isolated little shack that he lives in with his family - and it all helps to make this Robert Zemeckis' best film since Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That Warner Brothers waited until Christmas this year to release the DVD is a smart piece of scheduling - like Christmas itself, the anticipation was almost too much but, like the morning of December 25, it arrives and it's so very enjoyable.
The Polar Express has enjoyed a flawless transfer onto DVD on this Region 1 release with there being nothing that one can complain about. The image is stable, sharp, richly colourful, bright and wonderfully detailed, with the viewer able to pick out the smallest of moments within each scene, which is particularly useful in something as gorgeous as the flight of the golden ticket outside of the train or the Polar Express coming to a stop on the surface of the frozen lake. It's a superb presentation of the film that loses nothing even on a big screen.
The Dolby Digital - no DTS soundtrack, I'm afraid - is just as good, particularly with the arrival of The Polar Express outside of the young boy's house at the beginning of the film. What impresses is the range of the soundtrack, which in this scene, goes from nothing to being hugely loud in an instant and yet the audio track remains untroubled.
Theatrical Trailer (1m01s): This is the one that you'll have seen much of last Christmas and is a rather typical trailer, featuring much footage from the finished film and presented in such a way as to reveal nothing.
You Look Familiar (4m10s): Opening with Tom Hanks' line about, "One thing about trains...doesn't matter where they're going, what matters is deciding to get on!" Tell that to someone waiting at Harlow Mill waiting in the rain for a WAGN service that will be too late into Liverpool Street for work.
A Genuine Ticket To Ride (11m08s): Following a short introduction (1m58s), this opens a second menu allowing you to select chapters within this making-of or to play all. Either selection will begin a chapter on performance capture, which is presented by an unnamed little girl from the train as well as the know-it-all kid. Together, they take the viewer through Hair And Costume, Music and various other aspects of the production, keeping it so light and explained in such a way that it appears to be only for children.
An Author's Adventure (5m28s): Quite right too as authors of stories on which films are based never get quite enough recognition even on the most lavish of boxsets. This short feature looks at Van Allsburg's life and the books that he's written, ending, as one would expect with a look at The Polar Express.
Josh Groban At The Greek (4m32s): Given the manner in which he is greeted, I can only assume this is a homecoming gig in front of friends and family, during which he performs the saccharine ballad Believe, which closes The Polar Express. That the principal motif in the song appears to have been from one in Beauty And The Beast: The Enchanted Christmas seems to have passed everyone by.
Behind The Scenes of Believe (4m23s): There's more of it? Featuring an interview with songwriter Glen Ballard, best known for all manner of soft rock anthems, this looks at the writing and recording of Believe. Note that Josh Groban keeps his eyes closed when he talks about being thrilled to have been asked to record this song...I suspect he's lying.
Polar Express Challenge: This is a simple Simon Says... game in which the viewer has to repeat ever more complex combinations of the use of the right and left brakes with the respective keys on their remote to pass the challenge.
Meet The Snow Angels (2m43s): The filmmakers and stars return to tell of their favourite Christmas memories, not all of which sound as though they're worth the mental effort of remembering them - step forward Josh Groban - but those of Tom Hanks, Robert Zemeckis and Nona Gaye are all quite sweet.
THQ Game Demo: If I had a computer capable of playing it, I'd let you know if it was any good. Perhaps I should put one on my Christmas letter to Santa...
Additional Song (7m03s): The characters of Smokey and Steamer, the two drivers of the train, always felt a little underdeveloped in the finished film and this explains why. Early in the making of the film, they did have much more time on the screen, including a song but this was cut, leaving them wrestling on the front of the train and losing the pin that, eventually, breaks the ice on the lake. This extra allows the viewer to watch the scene in question but given that it was cut early in production, the animation is quite a rough cut.
Easter Eggs: There are five of these hidden on the second disc, which, if you should find them, will reveal Tom Hanks' performance, complete with a face full of little white dots, being captured for the cameras prior to the rendering of each scene.
It feels like it's been a long time since we have had a simple, feelgood Christmas film, uncomplicated by more adult concerns. Bad Santa, Elf, Home Alone and Santa Claus: The Movie all came with various worries about the real meaning of Christmas and it feels good to have an enjoyably seasonal tale of adventures in the snow, of the childish thrill of hearing sleigh bells, of having family and friends about and of the big laugh of the man from the North Pole. I would, without hesitation, put The Polar Express forward as a classic to join the likes of The Snowman, Father Christmas, Olive, The Other Reindeer, It's A Wonderful Life and two wonderful versions of A Christmas Carol, one with Alistair Sim and another with The Muppets. It's that good a film so whilst you may still have concerns over that animation, let it pass for an hour or so and take in the sights of this film, which are often wonderful but always of Christmas.
Last updated: 13/06/2018 15:51:55