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DVD Review: The Polar Express

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A movie that can only be considered ahead of time, The Polar Express only falters with its animation. Its story is heartwarming, characters memorable, and the message for the films target audience is perfect. This is a holiday classic, and it deserves recognition as such.

Based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg, Polar Express uses a new animation method to bring the story to life. Many shots are directly copied from the book, and they're perfect facsimiles. The story is small-scale, turned into a massive adventure aboard a magic train.

Following a young boy who is losing faith in the spirit of Christmas, Polar Express follows his journey that has a sole purpose: believe. The train taking him to North Pole becomes a wild ride. It's filled with well-crafted characters aimed directly at making the target audience grasp every shred of the "believe" message.

Tom Hanks plays, well, nearly everybody in the film. Five different characters are taken under his wing, from the main train conductor to the film's key character simply known as Hero Boy in the credits. A $150 million investment, Polar Express digitally captured the actor's performance, including full lip synch.

The result is a film that looks stunning. What comes off as strange is that it's also a little creepy. There's something either right or wrong with the animation that causes this. Facial movements seem natural, but you can't help but be distracted if they're off for even a split second.

Even still, you can't help but become engrossed in the story. Any animation gaffes are quickly forgotten as the film speeds along at a brisk pacing. Sequences like the train skidding out onto a patch of collapsing ice is not only masterfully directed by Robert Zemeckis, it's as memorable as they come. Becoming bored is not possible, and believing is the only option.

As with nearly every computer generated film on the DVD market, Polar Express looks remarkable. The only noticeable flaw is compression. With the Christmas theme, the film is filled with red hues, and the nighttime setting leads to darker blues. It's unavoidable. Sharpness and clarity can only be matched by other CG-based films.

Heavy on bass, the standard 5.1 audio track pumps out sound at a slightly lower-than-usual level. Dialogue tends to drown out when the film is going through one of its action scenes. The focus is more on making the action immersive than advancing the story. It does fine in this regard, with extensive use of all five channels.

Extras in this two-disc set are wonderful for both young and old. A commentary wouldn't have hurt, especially given the involving process of making the film and Tom Hank's multiple roles. A lot could have been cleared up.

That said, extras begin on the second disc. True Inspirations is a short piece on the book's author Chris Van Allburg and his personal history. Josh Groban at the Greek is a live concert in which the singer performs the wonderful theme song. Meet the Snow Angels is a three-minute piece on Christmas experiences from the various cast and crew. Behind the Scenes of Believe looks at the creation of Josh Groban's song. A short directional-based game is fair for little ones as they steer the Express out of harm's way on the ice.

Things continue with You Look Familiar, a piece on the animation process in plain English while showcasing Tom Hank's talents. Genuine Ticket to Ride is the longest piece at 12-minutes. It's a promotional making of made up of multiple chapters. While it covers specific areas of the film, this is information contained in other areas of the special features.

Michael Jeter performs in an unfinished deleted song sequence that runs for five minutes. Jeter passed away shortly after his role was completed, so this stands as his final performance. A PC game demo and numerous hidden easter eggs showing split screen comparisons between the finished film and Hank's performance are there if you play around with the menus.

Available in three different forms (not including the pan & scan editions), Polar Express is one to own. The best of the three is a gift set that included the two-disc special edition reviewed here, a snow globe, and toy train. The package looks great, and the snow globe is a nice collectible.

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.