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DVD Review: The Polar Express – Presented in 3D

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I really should have known better. I am old enough and have enough film experience to know better. Oh no, I couldn't listen to the experienced side of my brain, instead I had to listen to the bit that was saying: "Oh cool! I gotta have that!" Why couldn't my proper sense have kicked in sooner? I guess we'll never know. In my hands is the new release of The Polar Express, this time (just as the title proclaims) it is presented in glorious 3D. There it is, the gimmick that is intent on convincing you to double dip on a title that was originally released to DVD back in 2005. Let me tell you, get the original release, or if you must get this one, toss the 3D disc and stick to the original2D version.

So, there I was sitting in my room, lights turned down, ready to catch a bit of the Christmas spirit. I put in the disc labeled "3D," placed the cardboard glasses over my eyes and pressed play. Before the Polar Express even arrived to pick up our boy, my eyes ached and my brain pleaded for mercy. The fuzzy, ghostly images were too much to take and I had to claw the glasses from my eyes lest I become permanently fuzzed. There is no way I could watch it. I doubt anyone else can either. Quite frankly, it does nothing but a disservice to the new 3D technologies being enjoyed in the cineplex.

When The Polar Express first arrived in theaters in November 2004 it was simultaneously released in 3D on IMAX screens, the first Hollywood feature to be distributed in this fashion. It proved to be a popular draw and has been an annual tradition at select theaters each holiday season since. However, there is a very big difference between that 3D and the 3D presented here. IMAX 3D is a polarizing process that has two images presented on the screen that were passed through a polarizing filter paired with polarized glasses that only let through the appropriately polarized light creating the illusion of three dimensions. Yes, that is only a surface-depth explanation, but it gives you the general idea. The best thing about it is that it works, it looks good and does not rely on red and blue cellophane to do the job.

The 3D technology on the new DVD is the old school red/blue anaglyph style 3D. This is the style used before the dawn of polarized 3D. It was used most recently, theatrically, for Robert Rodriguez's The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl in 3D. It does not work well and generally results in headaches, at least in my experience. Unfortunately, it seems that Hollywood still thinks it is a viable gimmick for home use. They are wrong. Avoid this like the plague.

One thing to remember through all of this is that the movie is actually pretty darn good and a landmark in digital cinema. Robert Zemeckis directed this adaptation of the perennially popular Chris Van Allsburg story. What makes this version just a bit more interesting is the manner in which Zemeckis does the adaptation. Rather than making a live action film or a traditionally animated feature, Zemeckis has positioned himself as something of a technical innovator by combining the two with motion capture technology.

The idea of motion capture itself is nothing new, it has been used for years to help animators with movements for movies and video games, but it had not been used to quite this extent before. Is it perfect? No, but like all new technology, someone has to be the first to use it to help push it forward. Zemeckis did just that first with Polar Express and then Beowulf, using this new technology with both films. Watching Polar Express is a rewarding experience as we get a new look for a feature film combined with the sweet and hopeful story of a young boy's Christmas adventure. It is a little creepy at first, the faces just don't seem quite right, but you get used to it pretty quick. Anyway you want to slice it, you will be sucked in for the ride.

On the technical side of this DVD release, there is little to complain about in once you turn the 3D disc into the coaster that it ought to be. The flat version looks very good in its 2.40:1 widescreen format. The colors are sharp and the image is crisp with no digital artifacts. The audio is also good, if a little bit on the low side. It is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1.

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  • Philbert

    Thank goodness someone else recognizes what crap 3D DVDs using the anaglyph process are. A pure waste of money!!!! The only way to see good 3D is in one of the new digital 3D cinema formats or at an IMAX theatre.

    The TV stuff is as bad as that spate of anaglyph 3D conversions for TV broadcast back in the 80s. These kinda presentations give people who haven’t been to a true polarized film presentation the idea that all 3D is as crappy as these things are!!!!!!

  • Lou R

    One of the biggest let downs of this Christmas. I am a very big fan of “The Polar Express” and was very excited to see it out on a DVD in 3D, but when we tried to watch the movie it gave all of us a headache within 5 minutes. I tried everything they suggested but still got that bad ghosting effect and the color was completely ruined. Keep your money.

  • Kelly

    I was so excited when I picked up this DVD for Christmas — we just got through nearly one third of it tonight before our brains exploded. I hate it. We just turned it off 15 minutes ago and my eyes are still hurting.

    Thank goodness the DVD set has the regular, 2D version, which I love.

  • ken

    A complete, total failure. Doesn’t even look like 3D. Don’t waste your money if you haven’t already. Is this item being re-called?

  • Phil from Colorado

    My wife and I have seen the IMAX 3D version twice which was the finest 3D experience ever.

    I knew of the problems with the 3D Anaglyph process on the DVDs. There are 2 ways to minimize the problems. You need the sharpest, brightest, and clearest images to make it work. I bought the blue ray version and bought two pairs of optical quality 3D Anaglyph glasses (we bought the ones with the blue and red lenses) from an internet 3D specialty shop. The glasses run about seven dollars each and will also fit over most eye glasses. They will work with some other 3D DVDs but not all (they will not work with Journey to the Center of the Earth, for example). The websites will tell you which movies the glasses will work with.

    My wife and I find that the 3D effect from these glasses is much much stronger than with the cardboard glasses that come with the DVD. The image also is not blurry due to the optical quality of the glasses, at least with blue ray DVD. I also turned up the brightness on the TV which is recommended.

    There are two faults with the Anaglyph process that cannot be avoided. The colors tend to be washed out and you will see ghosting (double images) sometimes. When we watch the DVD, we don’t concentrate on the ghosting, and after a while, you are so wrapped up in the 3D, that you don’t notice it as much.

    For us, it was worth it to buy the optical quality 3D glasses as they were so cheap. However, I do not think that these glasses will help if you get headaches and may not work well for everybody.

    One thing that we noticed was how much better the characters’ expressions look in 3D than in 2D.

    So for us, the blue ray 3D DVD was worth the cost. It is not as good as IMAX 3D, but it works for us.

  • Chris Jarram

    Simple solution, buy a de-anaglyphed version from one of the underground stores. Techiques are used to create a page-flipped full colour version from the anaglyph frames and the result is every bit as good as it is in the IMAX theatre. You need home stereoscopic viewing technology, but that can be had with a PC, Stereoscopic Player and some $40 eDimensional shutter glasses. You can also use this with a number of DLP projectors. BAM – full quality at home IMAX 3D – amazing how many people are oblivious to this.

    The release of these films in anaglyph red-blue is a godsend, because it gives all the frame information needed for a conversion to a full colour L-R pair version.

  • Chris Jarram

    Oh, should have added I have a deanaglyphed DVD of both this movie and Journey to the Center of the Earth at home and they are both absolutely incredible… BETTER than the IMAX theatres as I’m using flicker-free active shutters and not inferior polarised technologies which the reviewer here speaks of.

    You guys are Soooooo missing out!!

    philbert, your statement “The only way to see good 3D is in one of the new digital 3D cinema formats or at an IMAX theatre.” could NOT be more wrong.

  • soffy

    This 3D DVD is crappppppp. I was so pissed off becasue it let me down. I could have tossed $16 out my car window when I was driving to get this movie and yeah it come with the reg movie but I paid to watch it on 3D!!!!! and if that was the case I would have paid for the blue-ray version.
    What a joke!!!! MERRY X-MAS

  • Dainer SM

    Chris Jarram,

    Have more info about to set up the deanaglyphed tecnology??

    [Personal contact info deleted]

  • Matt T.

    Quite a let down, but I was skeptical to begin with so I didn’t loose much…except for a couple of asprins and loss of vision in my left eye (hope its not permanent).

  • rob

    geeze…everyone CLAIMS they are getting headaches…i doubt that is REALLY the case…i think people just find the anaglyph experience a little annoying and the best way to express it is to say ‘it gave me a headache’. On the other hand, I honestly don’t get why so many people are complaining about this DVD–I was just watching it last night on my samsung computer monitor and I kept saying to myself, “why are people complaining–it looks great to me”. I think a LOT of people were expecting the full-color theatrical type of 3D, even though that’s not feasible unless you have an underground copy transferred to the field-sequential format (search for 3D shutter theater at ebay for the appropriate equipment, which isn’t very expensive).

  • http://www.criticaloutcast.com Chris Beaumont

    I am not claiming anything, I state fact when I say it gave me a headache. I was not expecting the theatrical experience, I know that is not possible, frankly, they should stop trying to replicate 3D at home, the tech is not there… yet.