DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

The Polar Express in 3D, Blu-ray (2004/2008)

Great film, breakthru animation, poor 3D

Published on November 19, 2008

The Polar Express in 3D, Blu-ray (2004/2008)
The Polar Express in 3D, Blu-ray (2004/2008)

Starring Tom Hanks
Directed by Robert Semeckis
Studio: Castle Rock/Warner Bros.
Video: 2.4:1 anamorphic/enhanced for 16:9 color, 1080p HD (both 2D & 3D versions on same disc)
Audio: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, DD 5.1, French 5.1, Spanish 5.1, Dutch 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Dutch
Extras (all 2D): Smokey & Steamer Song, “You Look Familiar: The Many Polar Faces of Tom Hanks,” “A Genuine Ticket to Ride” – five featurettes, “True Inspirations” – profile of author Chris Van Allsburg, “Believe” – Josh Groban performance and behind the scenes, “Flurry of Effects” – five motion-capture sessions, “Snow Angels” – moviemakers’ Christmas memories, Theatrical trailer
Length: 100 minutes
Rating: ****

This unusual production became an instant holiday film classic when brought out in 2004.  It is based on extensive motion-capture cinematography to bring to life the fantasy story of author Chris Van Allsburg, and Tom Hanks playing the central role of the train conductor as well as four other characters, and the animated characters on the screen look much like him. All the animation was done digitally using cutting-edge techniques, and it has greater depth, shading, and fine detail than any other animation.  The motion capture shooting gets the body language right, and the voices are of course natural, but the not-quite-lifelike digital characters onscreen add a sometimes eerie quality to the proceedings.  Some viewers have found this a bit creepy;  I didn’t – or if I did I enjoyed that.

The fantasy begins on Christmas Eve for the little boy who no longer believes in Santa Claus. He hears a loud noise and sees lights outside his bedroom; when he goes down to the street in front of his house he is confronted by a big passenger train which the conductor says is going to the North Pole for Christmas Eve and was he going to board.  There are other children on board, all going to the North Pole. Many adventures befall them on their journey and once there they are treated to a spectacular celebration and some worthwhile lessons before their return trip home.  Though it has plenty of lavish and eye-opening scenes, the story is basically free of the usual commerciality of Christmas entertainment and touchingly makes some uplifting points concerning faith, belief and the true Christmas spirit.

My main beef with this release is why in the world would Warner Bros. release it with anaglyph (red & cyan glasses) 3D rather than the more advanced polarized glasses process?  The news release even calls anaglyph “a new technology!”  That couldn’t be more wrong – it was invented in 1853!  It was used for some black & white 3D movies, which was passable, except that many people got headaches watching thru the red and blue glasses for an hour and a half.  But to subject the excellent color spectrum of this color film to distortion thru red and cyan glasses is a crime, when the polarized glasses technique is easily available. (I understand that with Blu-ray it has been possible to achieve not only greater resolution but better color balance, so that the 3D effect will be superior to anaglyph on standard DVD, but it’s still primitive technology.) 

Even polarized is becoming dated with the newer 3D technologies – one of which will be providing 3D TV in just a few years.  This 3D Blu-ray version probably came about as a result of the IMAX 3D conversion of the original theatrical film, but that one uses an advanced liquid crystal shutter technology – why wasn’t at least the polarized process used for this one?  Instead four cardboard red and cyan glasses are provided with the Blu-ray.  The polarized glasses are more expensive, so why not just offer one instead of four with the film?  Yes, some of the special 3D effects are quite exhilarating, but I believe most people would prefer to view the included 2D version of the entire film rather than fuss with the primitive and uncomfortable glasses.

 – John Sunier

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