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The Polar Express

Whether or not we want to admit it, there is such thing as a theatrical experience. No matter how badly you want Jurassic Park to rock on your home theater system, you will never get the same kind of experience as you did that first time you watched it on the big screen with a supreme sound system and a theater full of screaming audience members all sitting on the edge of their seats. Some movies just don’t hold up on DVD the way they do in theaters because they’re designed around that magical theatrical experience. The Polar Express is one of those films. The movie is a story about rekindling and preserving that sense of magic and wonder surrounding the childhood belief in Santa Claus. To help keep the joy alive in young hearts, a magical train called the Polar Express offers kids who doubt the jolly old elf’s reality a chance to visit him at the North Pole. Along the way the children encounter all sorts of unique experiences meant to bolster their sense of confidence in the human soul and Christmas spirit. If the concept sounds a little like those sappy holiday coffee table books that parents like to give their college age kids to inspire some familial Christmas cheer, that’s because that is exactly what the movie was based on.

With a plot so decidedly thin, the film plays to a completely different set of ideas to find its success. Since the movie is based on an children’s story the filmmakers did their best to maintain that sort of sensation. The artistry is visually breathtaking, like watching a beautifully illustrated book brought to life. The problem is that the animated storybook people, no matter how breathtaking, come across as a little bit hollow. They look great with the pause button on, but in motion it’s a little like watching animatronic mannequins in a store front window.

While the characters look a little freakish in motion, everything else is unrivaled among computer animated films. The sets and sweeping panoramas are eye-popping, but they only work given the right sort of theatrical experience. Regular theaters don’t do the movie justice, and home theaters are even less worthy. No, this film is only truly at its best in IMAX 3D and its easy to see why. The most exciting parts of the story revolve around high speed train sequences and sweeping shots of the movie’s elaborate sets. While hardly garnering a whisper of exhilaration on DVD, it’s fantastic, almost tear jerking, on a 6 story tall screen and even more so in 3D.

Not to be mistaken as a children’s movie, there are plenty of little moments throughout for the grown-ups to enjoy. Not only can you listen closely for the voices to try and find the five characters that Tom Hanks plays, there are several cameo characters to look for, like Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler as a rock ‘n rolling elf. Director Robert Zemeckis has also graced the movie with a few fun nods to some of his previous films. For example, it’s entertaining to see what happens to Santa’s sleigh when it hits 88 mph.

The sad part about this holiday movie is that it’s unlikely to become the kind of Christmas classic it’s aiming to be. There’s a special sort of winter mysticism to the story, but the film banks most of its success on the illustrations and they just don’t hold up without the theatrical experience. The movie is being re-released this holiday season in the IMAX 3D that is so vital to its triumph. Catch it while you can because the magic just doesn’t fit into a DVD. Two discs await you in this DVD package. The first is only the feature and the original trailer. All the bonus material is housed on the second disc (no doubt to allow the simultaneous release of both a single and double disc package – be careful which one you buy). The second disc is deceptively loaded with a very long play list of bonuses, but they’re all extremely brief and seem aimed at child-length attention spans.

The first extra to greet you is called You Look Familiar and it’s all about the many characters that Tom Hanks plays. A rather odd gimmick called the eHanks-O-Meter pops up and counts down Tom’s five roles: the Hobo, the Conductor, Father, the Hero Boy and the big man himself, Santa. This kind of bonus being the first on the list doesn’t bode well.

Ticket to Ride is a featurette that takes a look at the cutting edge technology behind how the film was made. Everything about the process seems designed to make creating the computer animated movie as similar to a regular production as possible. All of the costumes and wigs were actually created in real life and scanned into models for the computer characters. All of the performances were given by actual actors and captured into the computer. Even the digital camera set ups were created using real camera controls run by experienced cinematographers to make the shots as real as possible. It’s an interesting process but the documentary walk through is far too brief.

Not even Polar Express can get away from the obligatory music video. Josh Groban sang the theme tune for the film and a live performance of the song is thrown in, complete with token shots from the movie. As if that weren’t enough, the song itself gets its own featurette where the singer and songwriter take a few minutes to talk about how magical it was to bring the tune to life. It’s not terribly exciting stuff, but perhaps it will pull the heartstrings of some songwriter hope-to-bes out there.

Michael Jeter, who provided the voice for the train’s engineer, passed away during the making of the film. As a sort of tribute to him the DVD includes the song his character sung which was later cut from the film. It’s the closest thing the movie has to a deleted scene and it’s in a very rough form of animation. It also includes a moment about the origins of the hobo character, something that would have been nice to see in the film. At least it’s in as a bonus and it’s a welcome relief to have a feature where everyone isn’t talking about how magical the movie-making experience was.

For that extra schmaltz, there’s a little piece called Meet the Snow Angels (a title which doesn’t seem to make any sense) where the actors, filmmakers and the singer/songwriters all share brief versions of their favorite Christmas memories. A handful of other bonuses including games and a few other featurettes flush out the extras menu. All and all it’s a decent little package but, like the movie itself, fails to deliver any real excitement in DVD form.