The Polar Express (film)

The Polar Express is a 2004 American computer-animated adventure film[1] co-written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, based on the 1985 children's book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, who also served as one of the executive producers. The film features human characters animated using live-action motion capture animation. The film tells the story of a young boy who, on Christmas Eve, sees a mysterious train bound for the North Pole stop outside his window and is invited aboard by its conductor. The boy joins several other children as they embark on a journey to visit Santa Claus preparing for Christmas. The film stars Tom Hanks, who was also one of the film's executive producers, in multiple distinct roles, with Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Jimmy Bennett and Eddie Deezen in supporting roles. The film also includes a performance by Tinashe at age 9, as the CGI model for the female protagonist.

The Polar Express
The Polar Express (2004) poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Zemeckis
Produced by
Screenplay by
Based onThe Polar Express
by Chris Van Allsburg
StarringTom Hanks
Music byAlan Silvestri
Edited by
  • R. Orlando Duenas
  • Jeremiah O'Driscoll
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures[1]
Release date
Running time
100 minutes[2]
CountryUnited States
Budget$165 million[2][3]
Box office$286 million[4]
(original release)
$313.5 million[2]
(all releases)

Castle Rock Entertainment produced the film in association with Shangri-La Entertainment, ImageMovers, Playtone and Golden Mean Productions for Warner Bros. Pictures, as Castle Rock's first animated film. The visual effects and performance capture were done at Sony Pictures Imageworks. The film was made with a production budget of $165 million, a record-breaking sum for an animated feature at the time.

The Polar Express was released in both conventional and IMAX 3D theaters on November 10, 2004. The film grossed $311.3 million worldwide, and was later listed in the 2006 Guinness World Records as the first all-digital capture film. It also marks Michael Jeter's last acting role before his death, and the film was thus dedicated to his memory.[5]


In Battle Creek, Michigan, on the night of Christmas Eve, a boy becomes skeptical of the existence of Santa Claus [6]. Struggling to fall asleep, he witnesses a steam locomotive arrive on the street, and goes outside to examine it. The conductor introduces the train as the Polar Express, bound for the North Pole. Initially reluctant, the boy jumps aboard as the train departs.

In a passenger car, he meets a spirited girl and a know-it-all boy. The train picks up a boy named Billy, who also declines to board, but changes his mind, and the boy pulls the emergency brake to allow Billy to board, which is noticed by the conductor. As Billy sits alone in the train's observation car, hot chocolate is served in the passenger car, and the girl stows away a cup for Billy. As she and the conductor cross to the dining car, the boy notices that she left her unpunched ticket, but loses hold of the ticket between the cars when he attempts to return it. The ticket reenters the passenger car, but not before the conductor notices its absence and escorts the girl back to the rear car.

When the know-it-all claims the conductor will throw the girl from the train, the boy recovers the ticket and dashes to the dining car in search of the conductor, climbing onto the roof. He meets a hobo camping on the roof, who offers him coffee and discusses the existence of Santa Claus and ghosts. The hobo skis with the boy along the tops of the cars toward the coal tender, where the hobo disappears right at Flat Top Tunnel.

In the locomotive's cab, the boy discovers that the girl has been made to supervise driving the train while the engineers Steamer and Smokey replace the headlight.

The boy applies the brakes and the train stops coming across a herd of caribou blocking the tracks. The conductor pulls Smokey's beard, causing him to let out animal-like noises, and the caribou herd clears the tracks.

The train continues on at extreme speed, and the throttle's split pin (cotter pin) shears off, causing the train to accelerate uncontrollably down a 179-degree grade and onto a frozen lake. Smokey uses his hairpin to repair the throttle as the train drifts across the ice to realign with the tracks moments before the ice breaks.

The boy returns the girl's ticket for the conductor to punch, and as the three return to the passenger car, the Hobo uses a Scrooge puppet, taunting the boy and calling him a doubter.

The train arrives at the North Pole, where the conductor announces that one of the passengers will be chosen to receive the first gift of Christmas from Santa himself.

Discovering Billy still alone in the observation car, the girl and boy persuade him to come along, but the boy accidentally uncouples the car, sending it back along the line to a railway turntable in Santa's workshop.

The children make their way through an elf command center and a gift sorting office before being dumped into a giant sack of presents, where they discover that the know-it-all has stowed away, and the elves escort them out as Santa arrives.

A bell flies loose from the galloping reindeer's reins; the boy initially cannot hear it ring, until he finds it within himself to believe. He shows the bell to Santa, who selects him to receive the first gift of Christmas. Santa agrees to let him keep the bell, and the boy places it in his robe pocket.

The rear car is returned to the train as the children board to return home, but the boy discovers that he lost the bell through the hole in his pocket.

He returns home and awakens Christmas morning to find a present containing the bell. He and his younger sister Sarah joyfully ring the bell, while their parents, not believing in Santa, say that the bell is broken.

The boy reflects on his friends and sister growing deaf to the bell as their belief faded. However, the bell still rings for him, as it will "for all who truly believe".


This film marks the final performance of actor Michael Jeter; Jeter died the year before the film's release.
  • ^ I Motion-capture only, ^ II Additional motion-capture, ^ III Motion-capture modeling, ^ IV Voice only, ^ V Singing voice only



Hanks optioned the book in 1999 with the hopes of playing the conductor and Santa Claus.[7] One of the conditions of the sale was that the resulting film not be animated. Zemeckis, however, felt that a live-action version was unfeasible, claiming that it "would look awful, and it would be impossible – it would cost $1 billion instead of $160 million."[8] Zemeckis felt that such a version would rob the audience of the art style of the book which he felt was "so much a part of the emotion of the story".[7] In order to keep his vision a new process was created by which actors would be filmed with motion capturing equipment in a black box stage which would then be animated to make the resulting film.[7] Hanks stated that this method of working was "actually a return to a type of acting that acting in films does not allow you to do", comparing the process to performing a play in the round.[9]

Hanks plays five roles in the film including that of a small child (whose voice would later be dubbed in by Daryl Sabara).[10] Initially Zemeckis considered having him play every role, but after trying this, Hanks grew exhausted, and they whittled down the number.[9]


Principal photography of the motion-captures sequences began in June 2003, and wrapped in May 2004.[11]


Administration building of the Pullman Palace Car Company

The buildings at the North Pole refer to a number of buildings related to American railroading history. The buildings in the square at the city's center are loosely based on the Pullman Factory in Chicago's Pullman neighborhood.[12]

Polar Express LocomotiveEdit

Pere Marquette locomotive 1225, the basis for the Polar Express.

The locomotive featured in the film is an American 2-8-4 Berkshire type steam locomotive, with a cowcatcher, modeled after the Pere Marquette 1225, which had spent many years on static display near Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan on the campus of Michigan State University, where Chris Van Allsburg recalled playing on the engine when attending football games as a child.[13]

In July 2002, Warner Bros. approached the engine's owner, the Steam Railroading Institute, to study the engine.[14] The engine in the film is modeled from the PM #1225's drawings and the sounds from recordings made of the 1225 operating under steam.[15] The whistle, however, was taken from Sierra Railway #3.[citation needed]


The soundtrack of the film was released on November 2, 2004, through Warner Sunset Records.[16]


IMAX 3D versionEdit

In addition to standard theatrical 35mm format, a 3D version for IMAX was also released, generated from the same 3D digital models used for the standard version.[17]

Home mediaEdit

The film was released on DVD as separated widescreen and full-screen versions in single and two-disc special editions (with bonus features) and on VHS on November 22, 2005, one year after the film came out.[18][19] It was released on HD-DVD with bonus features in 2006 and on Blu-ray with bonus features on October 30, 2007, both presented in the original widescreen aspect ratio.


Box officeEdit

The film opened at #2 and earned $23,323,463 from approximately 7,000 screens at 3,650 theaters, for a per-theater average of $6,390 and a per-screen average of $3,332 in its opening weekend. It also brought in a total of $30,629,146 since its Wednesday launch. The weekend total also included $2,100,000 from 59 IMAX theaters, for an IMAX theater average of $35,593, and had a $3,000,000 take since Wednesday. In its second weekend, the film dropped 33%, and grossing $15,668,101, averaging $4,293 from 3,650 venues and boosting the 12-day cumulative gross to $51,463,282. In its third weekend, which was Thanksgiving weekend, the film increased by 24%, earning $19,389,927, averaging $5,312 from 3,650 venues and raising the 19-day cumulative gross to $81,479,861.[4] The film has made $187,224,490 domestically, and $126,275,943 overseas for a total worldwide gross of $313,500,433 (including all re-releases).[2] It appeared at No. 3 in the "25 Highest-Grossing Christmas Movies of All Time at the U.S. Box Office" list by Forbes, placed after Home Alone and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.[20]

The film had its network television premiere on ABC on December 1, 2006. The airing brought in 13.2 million viewers, winning its timeslot and ranking 20th in the Nielsen ratings that week, according to

Critical responseEdit

On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 61 out of 100 based on 36 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[21] On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 56% based on 207 reviews, with an average score of 6.42/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Though the movie is visually stunning overall, the animation for the human characters isn't lifelike enough, and the story is padded."[22] The Independent reported in 2011 that the film "is now seen by many as a classic".[23] CinemaScore reported that audiences gave the film a rare "A+" grade.[24]

Roger Ebert gave the film his highest rating of four stars, saying, "There's a deeper, shivery tone, instead of the mindless jolliness of the usual Christmas movie", and "it has a haunting, magical quality". Acknowledging comments by other reviewers, Ebert said, "It's a little creepy. Not creepy in an unpleasant way, but in that sneaky, teasing way that lets you know eerie things could happen."[25] Richard Roeper and Mick LaSalle also gave highly positive reviews to the film, with the former saying that it "remains true to the book, right down to the bittersweet final image"[26] and the latter giving it his highest rating of five stars, calling it, "an enchanting, beautiful and brilliantly imagined film that constitutes a technological breakthrough."[27] James Berardinelli gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, stating that it is "a delightful tale guaranteed to enthrall viewers of all ages", and ranked it as the 10th best film of 2004, tying with The Incredibles.[28] Ian Nathan of Empire Magazine gave the film three out of five stars, and said, "For all the fairy-lit wonder, some will rail at the idea of Back to the Future's director dabbling with such a schmaltzy tale. Cynics will sneeze in shock; children will cuddle up and dream along."[29] Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian also gave the film three out of five stars, saying, "After a promising and distinctive start, a railway adventure to meet Santa runs off the rails."[30]

The character design and animation were criticized for dipping into the uncanny valley.[31] Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film one out of four stars, and called it "a failed and lifeless experiment in which everything goes wrong".[32] Stephanie Zacharek of Salon gave the film 1.5 stars out of 5 and said, "I could probably have tolerated the incessant jitteriness of The Polar Express if the look of it didn't give me the creeps."[33] Geoff Pevere of the Toronto Star stated, "If I were a child, I'd have nightmares. Come to think of it, I did anyway."[34] Paul Clinton from CNN called it "at best disconcerting, and at worst, a wee bit horrifying".[35] Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote, "There's no way of knowing whether they drank the company Kool-Aid. Still, from the looks of The Polar Express it's clear that, together with Mr. Zemeckis, this talented gang has on some fundamental level lost touch with the human aspect of film."[36]


In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated The Polar Express for its Top 10 Animated Films list.[37] The film was nominated at the 77th Academy Awards in the categories of Best Sound Editing (Randy Thom and Dennis Leonard), Best Sound Mixing (Randy Thom, Tom Johnson, Dennis S. Sands and William B. Kaplan) and Best Original Song for "Believe" (music and lyrics by Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri).[38] The film was nominated at the 3rd Visual Effects Society Awards in the category of "Outstanding Performance by an Animated Character in an Animated Motion Picture."[39]

Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref(s)
Academy Awards February 27, 2005 Best Sound Editing Randy Thom and Dennis Leonard Nominated [38]
Best Sound Mixing Randy Thom, Tom Johnson, Dennis S. Sands and William B. Kaplan Nominated
Best Original Song Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri for "Believe" by Josh Groban Nominated
Golden Globe Awards January 16, 2005 Best Original Song Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri for "Believe" by Josh Groban Nominated
Grammy Awards February 8, 2006 Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri for "Believe" by Josh Groban Won
Visual Effects Society February 16, 2005 Outstanding Performance by an Animated Character in an Animated Motion Pictureg Michael Jeter, David Schaub, Renato Dos Anjos, Roger Vizard for Steamer Nominated [39]

Train tripsEdit

Polar Express train on the Mid-Norfolk Railway in 2019.

The film has also spawned multiple real-world holiday train-travel experiences based loosely on the film's train journey all over America and the United Kingdom under licence from Rail Events Inc.[40]

These include the Polar Express train ride held at the Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel,[41] and the Polar Express Train Ride of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad,[42] The Polar Express Train Ride at Aspen Crossing.[43]

The UK's first Polar Express train rides were hosted on the Dartmoor Railway and the Weardale Railway which were both owned by the company British American Railway Services. These services were all diesel hauled, however in 2016, Telford Steam Railway became the first UK line to run the Polar Express with steam which ended in 2017.[44][45]

The Polar Express ExperienceEdit

In November 2007, SeaWorld Orlando debuted the Polar Express Experience, a motion simulator ride based on the film. The attraction was a temporary replacement for the Wild Arctic attraction. The building housing the attraction was also temporarily re-themed to a railroad station and ride vehicles painted to resemble Polar Express passenger cars. The plot for the ride revolves around a trip to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Guests feel the motion of the locomotive as well as the swinging of the train on ice and feeling of ice crumbling beneath them. The attraction was available until January 1, 2008,[46] and was open annually during the Christmas season. 2015 was the final year of operation for the Polar Express Experience and Wild Arctic has since operated on a year-round schedule.

The 4D film, distributed by SimEx-Iwerks, has been shown at other amusement parks around the world including Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Dollywood (during the annual Smoky Mountain Christmas event), Vancouver Aquarium (2009—2010),[47] and Warner Bros. Movie World (during the White Christmas events in 2010 and 2011).

Video gameEdit

A video game based on the film was released on November 26, 2004 for GameCube, Game Boy Advance, PlayStation 2 and Windows, developed by Blue Tongue Entertainment and published by THQ.[48][49] The plot of the game is somewhat different than the film version. Within the game, the Ebenezer Scrooge puppet—who is set as the main antagonist of the game—attempts to prevent the children from believing in Santa Claus by stealing their tickets and trying to stop the children from making it to the North Pole.[50][51]

See alsoEdit


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  2. ^ a b c d "The Polar Express". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the original on October 1, 2007. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  3. ^ Grover, Ronald (October 19, 2001). "Can Polar Express Make the Grade?". Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Archived from the original on December 14, 2009. Retrieved November 12, 2014.
  4. ^ a b "The Polar Express - Weekly". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 31, 2019.
  5. ^ Rooney, David (October 24, 2004). "Review: 'The Polar Express'". Variety. Archived from the original on December 26, 2014. Retrieved December 10, 2014.
  6. ^ "Battle Creek, MI". Battle Creek Michigan. City of Battle Creek. Retrieved August 21, 2020.
  7. ^ a b c "Riding the Polar Express". Wired. Retrieved November 30, 2019.
  8. ^ Anwar, Bret. "Robert Zemeckis interview". BBC. Retrieved November 30, 2019.
  9. ^ a b Otto, Jeff. "Interview: Tom Hanks". IGN. Retrieved November 30, 2019.
  10. ^ Debkzak, Michele. "8 Festive Facts About The Polar Express". Mental Floss. Retrieved November 30, 2019.
  11. ^ "'The Polar Express' Diary: Part 3 -- The MoCap/Anim Process". Animation World Network. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  12. ^ "Ridin' the reels". The Chicago Tribune. October 7, 2007. p. 2. Archived from the original on August 11, 2017. Retrieved November 8, 2017.
  13. ^ Detroit Free Press, November 4, 2004 "Meet Chris Van Allsburg"
  14. ^ "Steam Railroading Institute History". Steam Railroading Institute. Archived from the original on January 7, 2015. Retrieved August 23, 2015. July 2002: Warner Brothers arranges to use 1225’s image in “The Polar Express,”...
  15. ^ Mills, Rick (May 22, 2015). "Iconic steam engine offering rides from Mt. Pleasant". The Morning Sun. Archived from the original on August 8, 2015. Retrieved August 23, 2015. The 1225’s blueprints were used as the prototype for the locomotive image, and its sounds were used to bring the Polar Express to life.
  16. ^ "The Polar Express - Original Soundtrack". Retrieved 7 January 2020.
  17. ^ B., Brian (November 23, 2011). "The Polar Express In IMAX 3D Returns to Theaters This Holiday Season". MovieWeb. Archived from the original on December 4, 2017. Retrieved December 15, 2017.
  18. ^, "The Polar Express (VHS) Archived March 5, 2016, at the Wayback Machine". Accessed December 20, 2014.
  19. ^ Arnold, Thomas (August 25, 2005). "Warner's 'Polar' Pricing Aimed at Goosing Margins". Archived from the original on October 14, 2005. Retrieved September 22, 2019.
  20. ^ "The 25 Highest-Grossing Christmas Movies Of All Time At The U.S. Box Office". Forbes. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  21. ^ "The Polar Express". Metacritic. Archived from the original on June 27, 2015. Retrieved June 8, 2015.
  22. ^ "The Polar Express (2005)". Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on June 12, 2015. Retrieved March 17, 2020.
  23. ^ "The 175m flop so bad it could end the 3D boom". The Independent. March 21, 2011. Archived from the original on October 22, 2017. Retrieved November 12, 2014.
  24. ^ Pamela McClintock (August 19, 2011). "Why CinemaScore Matters for Box Office". The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on May 10, 2014. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  25. ^ Ebert, Roger (November 9, 2004). "The Polar Express". Roger Ebert Reviews. Archived from the original on December 4, 2013. Retrieved November 12, 2014.
  26. ^ "The Polar Express - Movie Reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  27. ^ "High-tech magic and true feeling make 'Express' a holiday classic". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  28. ^ Berardinelli, James. "Polar Express, The (United States, 2004)". Archived from the original on September 7, 2015. Retrieved October 13, 2017.
  29. ^ "Polar Express, The Review". Empire Magazine. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  30. ^ "The Polar Express review – a trainful of sugar". The Guardian. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  31. ^ Page-Kirby, Kristen (May 7, 2015). "'The D Train' isn't actually about trains. But these 5 movies are". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on October 22, 2017. Retrieved June 8, 2015.
  32. ^ Travers, Peter (November 18, 2004). "The Polar Express". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on October 22, 2017. Retrieved June 8, 2015.
  33. ^ Zacharek, Stephanie (November 10, 2004). "The Polar Express". Salon. Archived from the original on June 23, 2015. Retrieved June 8, 2015.
  34. ^ Herman, Barbara (October 30, 2013). "The 10 Scariest Movies and Why They Creep Us Out". Newsweek. Archived from the original on June 23, 2015. Retrieved June 8, 2015.
  35. ^ Clinton, Paul (November 10, 2004). "Review: 'Polar Express' a creepy ride". CNN. Archived from the original on May 27, 2015. Retrieved June 8, 2015.
  36. ^ "Do You Hear Sleigh Bells? Nah, Just Tom Hanks and Some Train". The New York Times. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  37. ^ "AFI'S 10 Top 10 - Official Ballot" (PDF). AFI. 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 16, 2011. Retrieved September 8, 2016.
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  42. ^ "The Polar Express Train Ride". Great Smokey Mountains Railroad. Retrieved February 4, 2019.
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  44. ^ "THE POLAR EXPRESS™ Train Ride 2016". Telford Steam Railway. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  45. ^ "THE POLAR EXPRESS™ Train Ride 2017". Telford Steam Railway. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  46. ^ "The Polar Express Experience at SeaWorld Orlando Begins This Friday, November 12th..." Visit Tampa Bay. November 10, 2010. Archived from the original on November 12, 2014. Retrieved November 12, 2014.
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  48. ^ Adams, David (May 4, 2004). "Pre-E3 2004: THQ Announces Lineup". IGN. Archived from the original on December 24, 2014. Retrieved December 24, 2014.
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  51. ^ Gerstmann, Jeff (May 12, 2004). "The Polar Express E3 2004 Preshow First Look". GameSpot. Archived from the original on March 13, 2014. Retrieved December 24, 2014.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit