Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Polar Express


The minute I heard there was an IMAX version of The Polar Express, I knew that’s how I wanted to see it. Of course, it’s also available in 3D so I wanted to see that, too. I found a list of 70 theaters showing it in that format. We made a special trip up to the nearest one, at the museum in San Jose, paid our $11 each, and took our seats.

And it wasn’t in 3-D. We weren’t the only ones hoodwinked. Damn it, it was listed as 3-D IMAX at the website. But it turns out there are two IMAX formats … something I knew, but hadn’t taken into account. They used to have two different names for them: IMAX was the one shown on the six-story high flat screen, and the one projected on the 180-degree spherical screen, called OMNIMAX. With the goal of confusing everybody, I guess, they seem to have dropped the distinction in publicity, or they’re not being careful about it. The theater in San Jose was clearly named IMAX, but it was an OMNIMAX screen. The 3D Polar Express is only showing on the flat ones.

Oh, well. I still hope to see the 3D version, if it sticks around long enough.

So how is the film? I’m at a little disadvantage here. At times, things were entirely too close and lost a bit of definition. On the other hand, most of the time, though the faces and objects were gigantic … the illusion was pretty good. I’m talking about the computer animation. This film shows that we really are there now; we can generate a computer character that will fool the eye, that you will be unable to distinguish from an actor shot with a camera. Not that TPE was going for that. It was meant that you should know the characters were animated. But one of these days they’re going to sneak up on us and only tell us later that a main character in a film was actually an actor in a motion-capture suit.

As a technical achievement, it is glorious. A riot of color and action, unbelievable camera angles … easy to do, since this process doesn’t use a camera, just a virtual point-of-view. (Easy to make a 3D version, too; simply move the virtual POV over a bit and record a second version.)

So, that’s the tech stuff. How about the story? I’m not familiar with the book the movie is based on, though I doubt that it has as many roller-coaster sequences as the movie. But the story is good. It’s a bit creepy at points, which is good, and as heartwarming as it needs to be. It is an Xmas film, after all. The train is fun, the conductor has a heart of gold but won’t put up with nonsense. The North Pole is a very clean industrial town. I don’t know what the enigmatic hobo on the train was meant to be; I wouldn’t have missed him if he wasn’t there. But I enjoyed it, I’d go see it again.