|Polar Express, The|
|HD DVD Animation|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Wednesday, 01 November 2006|
“The Polar Express” is likely to become a perennial Christmas movie. if it hasn’t already. It will be going to be shown again and again to kids as the calendar winds down to Christmas. The storytelling is simple and heartfelt, and the computer generated art is beautiful. Add to that a breath-taking pace that will allow even adults to watch a repeat performance almost back-to-back almost immediately to review their favorite parts.
The story originally took shape as a 32-page book written and drawn by Chris Allsburg. Hollywood seems to be having a field day with 32-page kids’ books lately, because “Shrek” began the same way. To further enlighten you, Allsburg wrote and drew two other books that became movies, both of which were also 32-pagers: “Jumanji” and “Zathura”.
At 32 pages with pictures, the book was no doubt a great visual aid in the pitch to get the movie made. Allsburg is a gifted artist (sculpture as well as drawing), and has won the Caldecott Award for children’s fiction for “Jumanji” and “The Polar Express”, and the Caldecott Honor Medal for “The Garden of Abdul Gasazi”.
But it was director Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks who made sure the train left the station. Zemeckis co-wrote the movie with William Broyles, Jr., and Hanks stars as the Conductor, the adult version of the boy, the father, the snow hobo, Scrooge, and Santa Claus, giving each a different voice.
The imagery in the movie, even in this age of the computer, is striking and unique. Maybe it has something to do with the train, with the spacious cars the kids get to ride in, the feeling of hurtling across the frozen lands, over hill and dale, with all the adventures that occur along the way. Maybe it has to do with the over-the-top action of some of the characters—such as the hot chocolate servers that march into the train car and sing and perform amazing acrobatics. And maybe it has to do with that little bit of Christmas magic that everyone remembers around that time of year.
For the purposes of this review, I’ll stick with the tangible assets: such as Tom Hanks (on whom the Conductor’s three-dimensional image was created) and Zemeckis’s headlong pacing. And the knock-your-eyes-out visuals.
The story begins in a modest house with the Boy (no name given) lying in bed and waiting on Christmas. At first we don’t know what his problem is, but we quickly figure out that he’s losing his belief in Christmas. He’s even begun to think Santa Claus isn’t real. Nevertheless, he’s lying in his bed waiting to hear Santa’s sleigh arrive.
Instead, with a loud clattering that sets the surround sound system to vibrating and the subwoofer to jumping at its traces like a nervous sled dog, the Polar Express arrives outside. The huge train looks fabulous onscreen, especially in widescreen.
Shocked, the Boy stumbles outside and stares at the train. The Conductor, who looks amazingly like Tom Hanks, steps down and talks with the Boy. He lets him know, more or less, that Santa has noticed the Boy isn’t as trusting of Christmas as he used to be. As a result, Santa has sent the Boy a personal invitation to journey to the North Pole to see for himself.
At first, the Boy refuses, even after he’s found a mysterious ticket in his pocket that he knows was not there a moment before. When the train pulls away, he runs after it and pulls himself aboard, giving in to his need to know.
Aboard the train, the Boy meets other kids a lot like himself, all struggling with believing in Christmas. One of the things the movie can get away with is the lack of names. Not a single character in the movie, other than Santa Claus, gets named. They’re all defined by the traits they exhibit or the functions they fulfill in the plot.
The Boy gets into trouble with the Conductor by pulling the emergency stop lever when another boy wants to ride the train after first refusing the offer. Once the Conductor realizes what the Boy has done, he relents. The next sequence of events, the serving of the hot chocolate, is a cornucopia of special effects and just what a wild imagination given no physical constraints can come up with. It’s a musical piece with impossible movements and choreography that has to be seen to be believed.
In short order, the Boy gets into further trouble. He tries to give the Girl her ticket back after she leaves it, but the wind rips it from his hand. The ticket’s journey overland before it rejoins the train is amazing, a breathtaking sweep of action and camera point-of-view that will thrill young hearts and old.
Back aboard the train, the Boy discovers that the Girl’s ticket has found its way back to the car. He rushes after the Conductor and the Girl, thinking that the Conductor is going to throw her from the train. Only seconds later, the Boy is walking across the tops of the train cars trying to reach the Conductor and the Girl. He encounters the Hobo, who is somehow—unbelievably—making coffee over an open fire. Then begins another sequence of events that keeps viewers on the edges of their seats although they’re pretty sure everything’s going to work out.
Before the train pulls in at the North Pole, the Boy and the audience have both been through several hair-raising adventures and blown away by the sheer imagination of the storytellers.
HD DVD Video: The video quality of “The Polar Express” is first-rate. Given the new high-def capability of the HD DVD, the animation comes across as pure magic. The images are clear, clean, and colorful. One of the things that I first noticed was the shadow pattern of the falling snowflakes sliding down the Boy’s face. Not only was the movie well designed and executed, but the HD DVD allows them to show off how intricate the art team made everything. The mirror images done in the shiny hubcap were also extremely well done.
HD DVD Audio: LOSSLESS is the best sound that can be put on HD DVD discs at present, but disc manufacturers still aren’t using it. “The Polar Express” is well done in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, but since this is going to be one of those movies that’s watched year after year, by generation after generation, it would have made sense to code the audio portions with that. The movie explodes with music and sound effects, so this one—especially with perennial holiday appeal and Tom Hanks—looks like a no-brainer as a choice for a LOSSLESS selection.
The disc comes packed with extras. The special effects piece on “You Look Familiar: The Many Polar Faces of Tom Hanks” is informative and fun. The profile of author Chris Van Allsburg offers a lot of extra insight as to the original book. Josh Groban’s journey to bring “Believe” to fruition as a song is well chronicled. But one of my favorite pieces was “Meet the Snow Angels”, which has various movie crew members talking about their best Christmases.
There’s something magic about Christmas. That time of year brings a lot of people together. “The Polar Express” (along with “It’s A Wonderful Life” starring James Stewart) is one of those perfect Christmas movies. It’s made even better if you have kids to share it with while drinking hot chocolate and waiting for Santa to come.