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BMZ Review: The Polar Express: An IMAX 3D Experience
By Paula Tagle


© 2004 Warner Brothers. All Rights Reserved.

The Polar Express: An IMAX 3D Experience
Written by: Paula Tagle
Source: Big Movie Zone
Date: November 10, 2004


Category: Reviews

The Polar Express, released this November by Warner Bros. Pictures simultaneously on IMAX and 35mm screens, is based upon the much-loved children's book of the same name by Chris van Allsburg.  Perhaps it's the translation from book to movie (and some obviously added-on action sequences), but the story lacks the enchanting quality characteristic of classic holiday films.  A typical Christmas tale down to the final chapter's life lesson,  The Polar Express isn't a particularly interesting, clever or funny narrative.  The film's real accomplishment (at least in the IMAX 3D version) lies in its skillful animation and the successful DMR and 3D conversion; a process that first converts the conventional 2D film into 3D followed by a digital re-mastering into IMAX 70mm format.  This conversion to IMAX 3D transforms a plain, mediocre movie into an engaging film experience.

Director Robert Zemeckis once again teams with actor Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Cast Away) who voices not one but five characters.  A skilled actor, Hanks, however, is unable to provide a truly nuanced performance to each role.  They are all so obviously and distractingly Tom Hanks without any sense of distinction.  The Zemeckis thumbprint is also apparent throughout as the narrative constantly moves away from the main characters to follow the journey of some inanimate object (a runaway ticket, a lost pin) á la the wayward feather in Forrest Gump.  The story itself follows The Boy (all the main characters are nameless) who doubts the existence of Santa Claus.  It is up to a trip to the North Pole via the Polar Express to make a believer out of him.  It's no surprise who the boy meets once he reaches his destination.

Despite the predictable storyline, the IMAX 3D edition elevates the tale by extracting the most out of the already exceptional CGI animation.  During our introduction into this animated world, we are brought into a bedroom where we literally peek over a bed to find the sleeping Boy.  The 3D imagery also exploits our depth of field, like in the falling snowflakes that appear confoundingly close, successfully creating that immersive experience sure to delight.  And as expected, screeching trains come to a halt right before our nose.  Never overbearing or abusive, the 3D images offer a comfortable viewing experience that generate wonder rather than a headache.  Some small image distortions do occur with a tilt of the head too far from the center of the screen, but nothing outright annoying or cumbersome.

Details of the animation are also quite noteworthy thanks to the clarity and size of the IMAX screen.  Textures of clothes and all their intricacies, from The Conductor's tweed coat to the velvet sheen of Santa Claus's red bag, possess incredible realism.  Larger and clearer, the meticulous attention to surfaces and lighting, like the train's metal sheen and The Boy's wind-blown hair, generate some very lifelike images.  Focusing more on the marvel of the minute rather than IMAX's characteristic expansive scenery, the animation of The Polar Express capitalizes on an oft-neglected aspect of IMAX technology.

The film then works on a particularly visual and visceral level, but offers nothing extraordinary or challenging by way of narrative.  The characters are likable, the lesson simple, kids should be entertained.  Conventional 2D screenings of the film would probably offer just that type of cinematic experience rather than the immersive, captivating animation of IMAX 3D.  Much of the magic would undoubtedly be lost without the 3D aspect or quality of detail, reverting the film into a suitable holiday movie, cute enough but not impressive.

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