The Polar Express
February 21, 2006
Based on the book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, it’s something of a mystery why The Polar Express (2004) did not connect with audiences when it was released in theatres last year. Perhaps people weren’t ready to accept that kind of animation yet – at least not until it looks a bit more realistic. Regardless, Robert Zemeckis’ film certainly has all the right ingredients for a classic children’s Christmas movie: a timeless message, dazzling visuals, exciting action sequences and universal characters that anyone can relate to.
There is a jaded young boy who can’t get to sleep on Christmas Eve. That night, he’s visited by the Polar Express, a massive, old fashioned steam locomotive destined for the North Pole and populated by other cynical kids his age. The passengers are served hot chocolate while the train travels across large frozen bodies of water and even has a car devoted to old, abandoned toys. The more time the boy spends on the train and the more the amazing things he sees while en route to the North Pole, the more he finds himself caught up in the magic train’s spell. Once they reach their destination, the boy and two other children get separated from the others and find themselves lost in the vast city located on the North Pole.
The film contains some of the most impressive computer animation this side of Pixar except that it is not done in a caricature style but rendered as realistically as possible, much like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). However, despite the state-of-the-art CGI, the facial expressions of the characters aren’t quite as fully or realistically animated as in hand-drawn animation. They aren’t able to accurately render wrinkles on a person’s face. They still look too smooth and waxy with the hair looking rather plastic-like. However, the rendering of shadows and light, like a shot of the train stopped by the side of the road, the warm light of its interiors casting shadows on the snow covered ground while flakes of snow fall gently from the sky, looks very impressive indeed. Each scene is elaborately rendered with so much detail that you could pause any frame and spend a good amount of time marveling at all the work that went into this movie.
The Polar Express is a contemporary retelling of that classic story of the jaded child who learns the true meaning of Christmas. Genuine sentiment and good will towards your fellow human being is conveyed without being too schmaltzy about it which is something of a feat in this day and age. The Polar Express celebrates cooperation and the idealistic dreamer with nary a sign of a corporate plug for a toy-line in a favour of a timeless quality with a slightly nostalgic feel.
The first disc features a theatrical trailer.
The second disc starts off with “You Look Familiar,” a featurette on the many faces of Tom Hanks. He ended up playing five different characters and worked entirely on blue screen sets while wearing a motion capture suit and very little props or other actors to interact with.
“A Genuine Ticket to Ride” explores, briefly, the source material and how the filmmakers were able to adapt it through digital technology known as performance capture. This technology captures the actors’ facial features and body movements in a computer and then animates over top of it. This featurette takes us through the technical aspects of the filmmaking process in easy to understand terms.
“The Inspirations: An Author’s Adventure” takes a look at author Chris Van Allsburg. He got his start as a sculptor but moved on to drawings when it became too expensive to buy supplies. He ended up writing and illustrating several children’s books, including the now classic The Polar Express.
“Josh Groban at the Greek” is a music video of the singer performing “Believe” at the famous venue interspersed with clips from the movie.
“Behind the Scenes of ‘Believe’” takes a look at how the song came together and what it meant to those involved – clearly it was a labour of love.
“Polar Express Challenge” is a game that has you steer the train across the frozen lake to safety and then you have to help Santa deliver presents to deserving children and coal to the bad ones.
“Meet the Snow Angels” features key cast and crew members talking about their warmest memories of Christmas and the best gift they ever got.
Finally, there is an “Additional Song”, a deleted scene between Smokey and Steamer that was actor Michael Jeter’s last musical performance before he died.