The Polar Express (film)

The Polar Express

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Produced by
Screenplay by
Based on The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Music by Alan Silvestri
Edited by
  • R. Orlando Duenas
  • Jeremiah O'Driscoll
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release dates
  • October 21, 2004 (2004-10-21) (Chicago)
  • November 10, 2004 (2004-11-10) (United States)
Running time
100 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $165 million[1][2]
Box office $307.5 million[1]

The Polar Express is a 2004 American Christmas 3D animated musical fantasy film based on the 1985 children's book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, who served as one of the executive producers on the film. Written, produced, and directed by Robert Zemeckis, the film features human characters animated using the live action performance capture technique.

The film stars Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Jimmy Bennett, and Eddie Deezen, with Tom Hanks in six distinct roles. The film also included a performance by Tinashe at age 9, who later gained exposure as a pop singer in 2010, as the CGI-model for the female protagonist. Castle Rock Entertainment produced the film in association with Shangri-La Entertainment, ImageMovers, Playtone and Golden Mean, for Warner Bros. Pictures. The visual effects and performance capture were done at Sony Pictures Imageworks. The film was made at a budget of $165 million, a record-breaking sum for an animated feature at the time. The studio first released the film in both conventional and IMAX 3D theaters November 10, 2004. It grossed $307 million worldwide.

The Polar Express is listed in the Guinness World Book of Records in 2006 as the first all-digital capture film. This is Castle Rock Entertainment's first animated film. The film also marks Michael Jeter's last acting role before his death, and the film was dedicated to his memory.[3]


On Christmas Eve in the mid-1950s, a boy who is doubting the existence of Santa Claus witnesses a train called the Polar Express that is about to depart for the North Pole. When the boy examines the engine, the conductor lets him board the train. The boy meets other children, including a girl and a know-it-all kid who has a hyperactive personality. When the train picks up Billy, the hero boy applies the emergency brakes. Billy initially declines to board but changes his mind. The conductor summons a waiter team, who give the children hot chocolate, and the girl stows away one cup under her seat to give to Billy, who is alone in the observation car. The girl and conductor go to deliver the hot chocolate cup to Billy, but the hero boy discovers the girl’s ticket is unpunched. He loses it before he can return it. After the ticket is abused by the wind and animals, it slips back in the train. The girl explains her lost ticket, and the conductor considers ejecting her before taking her for a walk on the top of the train instead. The hero boy locates the lost ticket and pursues them.

Losing the girl and conductor, the boy meets a hobo, who claims he is the owner of the train and King of North Pole. Desperate to find the girl, the hobo helps the boy by skiing down the rooftops as the Polar Express goes down a steep slope. Before reaching Flat Top Tunnel, the boy jumps into the engine's coal tender and finds the girl is controlling the train. After the driver, Steamer, and his aide, Smokey, replace the light, Steamer witnesses something unusual ahead and orders the train to be stopped. The hero boy applies the brakes and the engine on the train screeches to a halt. When the conductor witnesses a caribou crossing, he pulls Smokey’s beard, causing him to let out animal-like sound effects, and the caribou horde clear out. The train continues on but as it starts to speed up, the cotter pin of the throttle sheers off causing the train to run out of control. Moving at dangerous speeds, the train becomes a roller coaster as it crosses Glacier Gulch and enters a frozen lake. The lost cotter pin pierces the ice, causing it to crack. Smokey uses his hairpin to repair the throttle. As the ice cracks, the conductor sends Steamer to the cab to drive and "steer" the train to the other side of the tracks before the icy lake shatters completely. The hero boy returns the girl’s lost ticket for the conductor to punch. The conductor takes the two kids to a train car with abandoned toys. The hobo scares the hero boy with an Ebenezer Scrooge puppet, and the boy retreats to the observation car where the girl and Billy are singing. The trio sees auroras, and the train finally reaches the North Pole.

Upon arrival, kids form lines while the hero boy and girl see Billy depressed and alone in the observation car. They encourage Billy to go, but the carriage is uncoupled after the hero boy accidentally stepped on the car's coupler cut lever, rolls downhill backward, and stops on a turntable. The trio explores the city's industrial area until falling on a pile of presents, which are transported in Santa's giant bag, which is then airlifted by Santa's zeppelin. Meanwhile, the kids discover that the know-it-all kid is also in the sack, having followed in an attempt to find out what he is getting for Christmas. The gargantuan bag is placed on Santa’s sleigh, and elves remove the kids. As the reindeer are prepared, Santa arrives. One bell breaks loose from a harness, and the hero boy retrieves it. He first hears nothing, but when he believes, he hears the bell ring. Santa entrusts the boy with the bell as "The first gift of Christmas". Santa leaves with his reindeer, and a band plays in celebration.

The elves re-attach the lost observation car back to the train, and the kids prepare to head home. The kids request the hero boy show the bell, but when he is devastated to learn that he has lost it; he regains his spirit after Billy is taken home. The hero boy is taken home and everyone else bids him farewell. The next day on Christmas morning, the boy's sister wakes him up to open presents, including the bell he lost, which comes with a note from Santa saying that he found it on the seat of his sleigh, and should mend the hole in his pocket. The parents hear nothing, and the boy leaves it on the table. The narrator ends the story by saying the bell only rings for those who truly believe and that it still rings for him because he never stopped believing from his time on his journey aboard the magical Polar Express.


This film marks the final performance of actor Michael Jeter; Jeter died the year before the film's release.



Administration building of the Pullman Palace Car Company

The buildings at the North Pole reference 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, and the Control Center is based on the old Penn Station in New York City.[4]

Polar Express Locomotive

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, modeled after the Pere Marquette 1225, which had spent many years on static display near Spartan Stadium, where Chris Van Allsburg recalled playing on the engine when attending games as a child.[5]

In July 2002, Warner Bros. approached the engine's owner, the Steam Railroading Institute, to study the engine.[6] 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.[7]

IMAX 3D version

In addition to standard theatrical 35mm format, a 3-D version for IMAX was also released, generated from the same 3-D digital models used for the standard version. It was the first film not specially made for IMAX to be presented in this format and the first to open in IMAX 3-D at the same time as main flat release. The 3-D version out-performed the 2-D version by about 14 to 1. The 3-D IMAX version was released again for the 2005 Holiday season in 66 IMAX theaters and made another $7.5 million prior to Christmas. Due to its financial success, the IMAX version was re-released every year until 2012. The anaglyph 3-D version was released to DVD and Blu-ray Disc, October 28, 2008. Both formats include both the film's 2-D and 3-D versions. It was then re-released on Blu-ray 3D (stereoscopic) November 16, 2010, with new cover art.

Home media release

The film was released on DVD as separated widescreen and full screen editions and on VHS on November 22, 2005.[8] It was released on Blu-ray with bonus features and presented in the original widescreen aspect ratio on October 30, 2007.


The film's score was composed by Alan Silvestri. This film marks Silvestri's 11th time collaborating with Zemeckis. Other films Silvestri has scored include Cast Away, What Lies Beneath, Contact, Back to the Future, and Forrest Gump.


Critical response

The Polar Express holds a score of 61 out of 100 based on 36 reviews at Metacritic, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[9] Rotten Tomatoes, however, reports 55% approval based 199 reviews, putting it within "rotten"; the film's average rating on the site is 6.4/10. The 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."[10]

Roger Ebert gave the film a full 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."[11] Richard Roeper gave a glowing review to the film as well, saying that it "remains true to the book, right down to the bittersweet final image." James Berardinelli gave it a 3.5/4, stating that it is "a delightful tale guaranteed to enthrall viewers of all ages", and ranked it as the 10th best film of 2004.[12]

The character design and animation were criticized for dipping into the uncanny valley.[13] Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film 1 star out of 4, and called it "a failed and lifeless experiment in which everything goes wrong".[14] 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."[15] Geoff Pevere of the Toronto Star stated, "If I were a child, I'd have nightmares. Come to think of it, I did anyway."[16] Paul Clinton from CNN called it "at best disconcerting, and at worst, a wee bit horrifying".[17]

Despite the polarized reception from critics, The Polar Express has been popular among audiences. The Independent reported in 2011 that the film "is now seen by many as a classic".[18] CinemaScore reported that audiences gave the film a rare "A+" grade.[19]

Box office

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, it grossed another $15,668,101, averaging $4,293 from 3,650 venues and boosting the 12-day cumulative to $51,463,282 and over Thanksgiving weekend made another $19,389,927, averaging $5,312 from 3,650 venues and raising the 19-day cumulative to $81,479,861. The film has made $182,704,446 domestically (including IMAX re-releases), and $124,140,582 overseas for a total worldwide gross of $306,845,028.[1]

The film had its network TV premiere on ABC, 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

Awards and honors

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards:

In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated The Polar Express for its Top 10 Animated Films list.[21]

The "Polar Express Experience"

In November 2007, SeaWorld Orlando debuted the Polar Express Experience, a Motion Simulator ride based on the film. The attraction is 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,[22] and is now open annually during the Christmas season.

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),[23] and Warner Bros. Movie World (during the White Christmas events in 2010 and 2011).

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 "The Polar Express". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2014-11-12.
  2. Grover, Ronald (19 October 2001). "Can Polar Express Make the Grade?". Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Retrieved 2014-11-12.
  3. Rooney, David (October 24, 2004). "Review: 'The Polar Express'". Variety. Retrieved December 10, 2014.
  5. Detroit Free Press,November 4, 2004 "Meet Chris Van Allsburg"
  6. "Steam Railroading Institute History". Steam Railroading Institute. Retrieved August 23, 2015. July 2002: Warner Brothers arranges to use 1225’s image in “The Polar Express,”...
  7. Mills, Rcik (May 22, 2015). "Iconic steam engine offering rides from Mt. Pleasant". The Morning Sun. 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.
  8., "The Polar Express (VHS)". Accessed December 20, 2014.
  9. "The Polar Express". Metacritic. Retrieved 2015-06-08.
  10. "The Polar Express (2005)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2015-06-08.
  11. Ebert, Roger (November 9, 2004). "The Polar Express". Roger Ebert Reviews. Retrieved 2014-11-12.
  12. Berardinelli, James. "Polar Express, The (United States, 2004)". Retrieved 2015-06-08.
  13. Page-Kirby, Kristen (2015-05-07). "'The D Train' isn't actually about trains. But these 5 movies are.". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-06-08.
  14. Travers, Peter (2004-11-18). "The Polar Express". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2015-06-08.
  15. Zacharek, Stephanie (2004-11-10). "The Polar Express". Salon. Retrieved 2015-06-08.
  16. Herman, Barbara (2013-10-30). "The 10 Scariest Movies and Why They Creep Us Out". Newsweek. Retrieved 2015-06-08.
  17. Clinton, Paul (2004-11-10). "Review: 'Polar Express' a creepy ride". CNN. Retrieved 2015-06-08.
  18. "The 175m flop so bad it could end the 3D boom". The Independent. 21 March 2011. Retrieved 2014-11-12.
  19. Pamela McClintock (August 19, 2011). "Why CinemaScore Matters for Box Office". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  20. "Academy Awards Database: 2004 (77th)". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2014-11-12.
  21. "AFI'S 10 Top 10 - Official Ballot" (PDF). AFI. 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 16, 2011. Retrieved September 8, 2016.
  22. "The Polar Express Experience at SeaWorld Orlando Begins This Friday, November 12th...". Visit Tampa Bay. November 10, 2010. Retrieved 2014-11-12.
  23. "Polar Express 4-D Experience". November 30, 2009.

External links

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