Suddenly, on Christmas Eve, a boy who did not believe in the existence of Santa Claus gets the opportunity to visit him at the North Pole. While traveling on the Polar Express train, the young hero makes new friends and learns a useful lesson.
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Young and adult readers around the world should be eternally grateful to American writer Chris Van Allsburg for his dozens of imperishable fairy tales, to which one can easily pass a warm evening at home. Coming up with extraordinary characters and putting them in an unimaginable environment, the writer always projects his fantasy on our reality, so that by means of fantastic tools to instruct their readers, once again explain how to build a competent human relationships, and why family and friends, in spite of all the troubles should always be in the first place, while everything else must wait in the wings. Of course, Chris Van Allsburg’s most famous and revered work is Jumanji, an amazing, intriguing and suspenseful story that flirts with genuine danger and does not shy away from pouring out in acceptable doses the most real nightmare flows from the main characters’ subconscious on the reader. And it was just the famous adaptation of the tale, released in the efforts of director Joe Johnston, allowed the writer to find true fame and become one of the most sought-after authors on both sides of the ocean. But for all the well-deserved regalia of ‘Jumanji’, it would be somewhat unfair to link Chris van Allsburg’s name exclusively with the adventures of Alan Parrish and his unexpected companions. The writer’s creative legacy extends much further. And not the least of his works is ‘The Polar Express’, a small but fascinating and colorful book that tells the story of how one day a train arrives at Santa Claus’s with children who deserve to see a miracle.
The volume of the printed ‘Polar Express’ was very small, but that did not prevent the book to become a de facto bestseller, which parents read to kids just in time for the upcoming winter holidays. It’s also worth noting that Chris van Allsburg, as a real sculptor and thus a man of art, personally designed ‘The Polar Express’ with numerous illustrations, which allowed the reader to instantly picture in his mind the scenes described, and as if transported to the fabulous pages in the blink of an eye. And although for a long time ‘Polar Express’ existed only as a children’s book, no one doubted that after the exploits of Jumanji ‘someday will come and his time to conquer the big screen through the expensive movie adaptation. The biggest fan of the adventures of children on the train to Santa Claus was none other than Robert Zemeckis, one of the most respected directors of his generation, who decided to radically change the vector of career and abandon work on traditional feature films. After his films What Lies Hidden? and Outcast, Zemeckis plunged headlong into the development of computer technology which allowed him to digitize the movements of actors and build graphic characters from them. The lengthy process of refining the existing capabilities eventually culminated in 2004’s The Polar Express, which was to become the most authentic version of Van Allsburg’s tale that could ever be made.
The plot of the cartoon, expanded thanks to screenwriting ideas by Robert Zemeckis and his collaborators themselves, introduces us to an ordinary boy (Tom Hanks) who has stopped believing in the miracles of Christmas night. Frankly disappointed in all this holiday tinsel, the hero was about to despair of ever feeling a pleasant heat in his chest when you expect in the morning to open such a long-awaited present from under the tree and to make sure that Santa Claus really exists, but suddenly a striking opportunity opened before him to take the polar express train and go straight to the land of elves, reindeer and one overly kind plump grandfather, who gives joy to all children at the cherished Christmas time. And although the boy remains skeptical of fairy tales, miracles and magic, he will have to realize that Santa Claus, this is not an invention of adults. It turns out that he really dissects the sky on Christmas Eve, and before that the whole year toil in his factory to make for each individual child a special gift. But for starters, the hero, and the other children caught on the express train this evening, need to be patient and get to their fairy-tale destination through a long drive through the woods and snow. And who would have thought that the polar train would encounter a whole bunch of problems that one over-enthusiastic conductor (Hanks) can’t easily solve.
Chris Van Allsburg’s original book could have made a great short film, but that was not part of Robert Zemeckis’ plans. Not for the full four years he went into the shadows, to deal with the capture motion and other technological innovations that allow you to turn people into animated freaks. Working on ‘Polar Express’, the director added many additional scenes, allowing the audience to show the full power of computer graphics, combining the game world with the drawn. This cartoon is partly transformed into a dynamic, tense and unpredictable spectacle with a mass of frightening moments that make the audience if not frightened, then is in constant attention. There was nothing like that in van Allsburg’s book, but that doesn’t mean that Zemeckis went too deep into his creative research. On the contrary, he borrowed some ideas from Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Story’, known for its direct flirtation with darkness, understood by adults and children alike. Still, the excessive fascination with technology couldn’t help but affect the overall impression of the cartoon, which is definitely good, but feels more like a demonstration of graphic possibilities than a stand-alone story.
Robert Zemeckis could not organically stretch a children’s book of a couple of pages to the size of a feature-length film. Not least of all, such feelings arise from the overly artificial faces of the title and secondary characters. No matter how hard the graphic wizards tried, they failed to make the characters real, there is no sense of something appealing, sincere and honest in them. Only Zemeckis’s unquestionable talent as a storyteller and skillful director allows us to discern glimpses of living beings in children and adults, which makes the viewing at least occasionally warm and heartfelt. Also, for all the controversial moments, one must appreciate the efforts of Tom Hanks, who embodied several characters on screen at once. Though in some moments he is simply unrecognizable, but in the character of the conductor he looks quite effective and appears to be a kind of an eccentric joker, making you feel in the comfortable conditions of a posh cast approximating a fairy tale. Hanks really tried and let the computer graphics have averaged his findings, the audience under any circumstances will appreciate his game, which can not be hidden by anything.
In the end I want to say that ‘The Polar Express’ is a fascinating, but far from the most authentic Christmas tale. Robert Zemeckis has undoubtedly done a monster job which is worthy of attention, but let’s not forget that the spirit of Christmas has a much more important basis than boundless fascination with technology. Nevertheless, the cartoon should be taken into account and still be enjoyed.
Codec: HEVC / H.265 (45.3 Mb/s)
Resolution: Upscaled 4K (2160p)
Original aspect ratio: 2.39:1
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 16-bit)
English: Dolby Digital 5.1
French (Canada): Dolby Digital 5.1
French: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
German: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
Italian: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
Dutch: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
Mandarin: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
Mandarin: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
Cantonese: Dolby Digital 5.1
Korean: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
Czech: Dolby Digital 5.1
Danish: Dolby Digital 5.1
Finnish: Dolby Digital 5.1
Dutch: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
Hungarian: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
Norwegian: Dolby Digital 5.1
Romanian: Dolby Digital 2.0
Swedish: Dolby Digita 5.1
English SDH, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Cantonese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Hungarian, Korean, Mandarin (Simplified), Mandarin (Traditional), Norwegian, Romanian, Swedish.