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THE POLAR EXPRESS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  Tom Hanks
Director:  Robert Zemeckis
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  100 Minutes
Release Date:  November 22, 2005

"I want to believe."

Film ****

I haven't seen many movies as magical as The Polar Express. 

In an age where computer animation has become common, director Robert Zemeckis has delivered a film that's anything BUT common.  It's visually breathtaking from start to finish, creating a wondrous world out of nothing but sheer imagination.  But even more so, it's a lovely, moving story filled with characters you won't forget...even if you don't know their names.

It's about a young boy, known only in the credits as Hero Boy.  It's Christmas Eve, and he lies awake listening for sleigh bells.  He doesn't really expect to hear them; he's reached the age where the idea of Santa Claus doesn't seem very real to him anymore.

His wavering faith brings an unexpected visit from The Polar Express, a magnificent old-fashioned train that rolls right up outside his house on tracks that were never there before.  The kind but mysterious conductor invites him on a journey to the North Pole, something only a few select kids get to do every year.

He meets up with those other kids, including Hero Girl, a kindhearted African American girl, a nerdy know-it-all, and Lonely Boy, who almost doesn't get on, and when he does, keeps himself separate from the other children.

The trip to the North Pole is fraught with excitement and wonders.  Ice covered tracks lead to a spectacular and desperate maneuver to keep the train upright.  There's an adventure on top of the train that leads to a grip-tightening race on skis.  The train rolls up and around a great mountain, and races on tracks that sometimes look as though they belong in Busch Gardens.

And once they reach their destination, there is even more in store, as Hero Boy, Hero Girl and Lonely Boy get separated from the others, and end up on a whimsical tour of Santa's operation, where the elves are finishing their work and still monitoring the nice and naughty children.  "Put him on the 'check-twice' list for next year!" one orders.

And of course, at long last, is the appearance of the big man himself.  He has his sleigh and reindeers, and Hero Boy at long last learns why he could never hear the bells.  Santa has a long night's work ahead of him, but he takes time to deliver an important message on the power of believing.

There's so much in this film that a simple review or plot outline can't even begin to do it justice.  This is a movie where anything is possible.  It's filled with laughter, suspense, sweet moments of drama and ones of limitless joy.  Zemeckis' vision included a new technology in which computers actually map the actors' actions, thereby creating some of the most realistic movements ever seen in animation.  In other words, Tom Hanks does more than supply the majority of the voices in the picture.  He acted the parts for the computer to replicate, so a lot of the humanity of the film is owing directly to him.

I could spend pages analyzing the sheer technical brilliance of the film, but to do so would be to overlook that the science exists for a simple reason:  to tell a magnificent story.  I can't remember the last movie that really made me feel like a little kid again.  Willy Wonka may have his Chocolate Factory, but his operation has nothing on Santa's glorious workshop.

Kids and adults alike will fall under the spell of The Polar Express, and if there's any justice, this movie will become an all new and important holiday tradition for families around the world.  It's message of hope, understanding and faith inspired and moved me.  That's a rare commodity for any film, animated or otherwise.

Video ****

Computer animation and DVD were meant for each other.  This movie is filled with detail, and the anamorphic widescreen transfer doesn't hedge on any of them.  Each frame is a colorful, busy delight, and images are rendered with startling clarity and crispness from start to finish.  It doesn't get much better than this.

Audio ****

The 5.1 audio offering is a knockout.  From the moment the train rolls into the story, you're in for a thrill ride.  There is plenty of signal for all corners of your home theatre to keep you ensconced in the center of the action, with tremendous dynamic range, powerful bass output, and Hans Zimmer's soaring musical score.  Everything is strong and well-balanced.  Simply superb.

Features ****

This two disc set is loaded.  On Disc One, you get the movie and the trailer...a wise decision, as it leaves plenty of space for the video and soundtrack so that compression isn't overly required.

Disc Two has everything else.  There is a deleted song, featurettes on Tom Hanks as the many faces of the movie, the making of the film, and a look at the author Chris Van Allsburg, plus a live performance of the Oscar nominated song "Believe" (it should have won, in my opinion) by Josh Groban, the recording of the song, a Polar Express Challenge, and the reliving of some Christmas memories by the filmmakers.  Rounding out is some content for your DVD ROM, not to mention some well done animated menu screens.

Summary:

The Polar Express will remind you how magical movies can be, and like Hero Boy, you'll spend 100 minutes remembering what it was like to hold the world in childlike awe.  Mere words are far to feeble to convey the wondrousness of the experience...this is a must-see.

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