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The Polar Express: Widescreen Special Edition

It may not have become the instant holiday classic that its cast and crew were hoping for, but The Polar Express (2004) is a sweet, imaginative adventure that's awfully easy on the eyes. Based on Chris Van Allsburg's best-selling holiday picture book, Express is beautifully animated; the scenes of swirling snow and golden light are vivid and gorgeous, melding cutting-edge technology with a mood of burnished nostalgia for a long-ago childhood. In the movie, that childhood belongs to a youngster known only as Hero Boy (voiced by Daryl Sabara, performed by Tom Hanks), whose growing skepticism about the true nature of Santa earns him a Christmas Eve ride on the titular train. En route to the North Pole, Hero Boy faces a number of sticky situations with the help of new friends Hero Girl (voiced and performed by Nona Gaye), Lonely Boy (voiced by Jimmy Bennet, performed by Peter Scolari), Conductor (Hanks), and Hobo (Hanks again). And once he arrives, he finds his faith in the spirit of Christmas put to the ultimate test. The film's big gimmick is that it's the first major movie to rely on performance-capture animation — the Conductor (and Santa, and the Hobo, and Hero Boy…) wasn't just drawn to look like Hanks; he was brought to life through the strategically placed blue dots that were all over Hanks' face as he acted out his scenes. But even this "revolutionary" technique can't prevent The Polar Express's humans from coming across as a bit stiff and unnatural (the Hobo's grizzled, somewhat menacing visage looks like Hanks by way of John Malkovich, and Hero Boy's smooth, unlined face never really sells most of his emotions). Ultimately, by making such a fuss over their fancy animation method, the filmmakers draw extra scrutiny to one of the movie's flaws. The best way to approach The Polar Express is to think as little about the behind-the-scenes process as possible and just enjoy the finished product — the warm, inviting brick buildings of the glowing North Pole, the shimmering Northern Lights, the clouds of steam enveloping the train itself. Like Hero Boy, if you put aside your doubts and believe, the magic of Christmas has a much better chance of carrying you away. Warner's two-disc widescreen special edition of The Polar Express (a separate full-screen version is available) offers the film in a lovely, crisp anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (Spanish and French 5.1 tracks are available, as are English, Spanish, and French subtitles). The only extra on Disc One is the theatrical trailer, while the rest of the goodies are on the second platter. Pop that in to find "A Genuine Ticket to Ride" (a 12-min., five-part "making-of" featurette); a montage of Hanks performing his various roles; a featurette about author Van Allsburg; footage of Josh Groban performing the credits song, "Believe," at Berkeley's Greek Theatre; a behind-the-scenes featurette about the song; the "Polar Express Challenge" interactive game; a featurette in which the cast and crew reminisce about their favorite Christmas memories; a demo for the PC game based on the movie; rough animation for a song that was cut from the film; five hidden clips; and additional DVD-ROM features. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case with paperboard sleeve.
—Betsy Bozdech

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