The Polar Express (film)

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The Polar Express
Polar express.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Produced by Steve Starkey
Robert Zemeckis
Gary Goetzman
William Teitler
Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis
William Broyles, Jr.
Based on The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Starring Tom Hanks
Narrated by Tom Hanks
Music by Alan Silvestri
Cinematography Don Burgess
Robert Presley
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 motion capture computer-animated musical Christmas fantasy film based on the children's book of the same title by Chris Van Allsburg. Written, produced, and directed by Robert Zemeckis, the film featured human characters animated using the live action performance capture technique, with the exception of the dancing waiters who dispense hot chocolate on the train, because their feats were impossible for live actors to achieve. 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 received mixed reviews from critics but 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.

This was Michael Jeter's last acting role, and the film was dedicated to his memory.[3]


On the night of Christmas Eve in the late-1950s, a boy witnesses a train called the Polar Express, that is about to embark to the North Pole. Just as the boy goes up to the engine to have a look, the conductor lets him board the train. The boy meets other children, including a girl and a know-it-all kid. When the train goes to pick up Billy, the hero boy applies the emergency brakes to let Billy on board, who at first declined to board but changed his mind. The conductor then summons a waiter team, who give the children some hot chocolate, the girl stows away one cup under her seat to give to Billy, who is alone in the observation car. The girl and conductor deliver the hot chocolate cup to Billy until the hero boy discovers the girl’s ticket unpunched. He tries to return the ticket but loses it. After the ticket is abused by the wind and animals, it slips back in the train. The girl explains about her lost ticket and the conductor at first decides to eject her from the train but instead takes her for a walk on the rooftops of the train. The hero boy hauls the lost ticket back in and pursues the girl and conductor on the rooftops.

Losing the girl and conductor, the boy meets a hobo, who claims he’s 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. Before reaching Flat Top Tunnel, the boy jumps into the engine's coal tender, and finds the girl controlling the train. After the driver, Steamer and his aide, Smokey replace the light, Steamer orders to stop the train, witnessing something unusual ahead. The hero boy applies the brakes and the engine comes screeching to a halt and the conductor witnesses a caribou crossing. The conductor pulls Smokey’s beard, causing him to let out animal-like sound effects, which makes the caribou horde clear out. The train continues on, but starts to speed up, when the cotter pin of the throttle sheers off. Moving at extreme speed, 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 orders Steamer to get to the other side of the tracks, and does successfully 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 room with abandoned toys. The hero boy is scared off by one puppet, the puppet of the evil Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol portrayed by the hobo and 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 alone in the observation car. They try to convince Billy to go but the carriage is accidentally uncoupled and rolls downhill backwards then stops on a turntable. The trio explore the city's industrial area until falling on a pile of presents, which are transported in a giant bag carried by a blimp. The gargantuan bag is placed on Santa’s sleigh and the kids are removed by the elves. With the reindeer being 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 a sound. Santa entrusts the boy 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 to show the bell, until he finds that he has lost the bell by the ripped pocket. Though devastated for the loss, he regains his spirit after Billy is taken home. The hero boy is taken home and everyone else bids him farewell. The next morning, the boy’s sister wakes him up to open presents, including the bell he lost. 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.


This film marks the final performance of actor Michael Jeter; Jeter died the year before the film's release.
  • Tom Hanks as the Hero Boy (motion-capture only), the Hero Boy's father, the Conductor, the Hobo, Santa Claus, and the Narrator
  • Daryl Sabara as the Hero Boy (voice)
  • Leslie Zemeckis as Sister Sarah (motion-capture only) and the protagonist's mother
    • Isabella Peregrina as Sister Sarah (voice)
    • Ashly Holloway as Sister Sarah (additional motion-capture)
  • Eddie Deezen as the Know-It-All Kid
  • Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl
    • Tinashe as the Hero Girl (motion capture only)
    • Chantel Valdivieso as the Hero Girl (additional motion-capture)
    • Meagan Moore as the Hero Girl (singing voice)
  • Peter Scolari as Billy the Lonely Boy (motion-capture only)
    • Hayden McFarland as Billy the Lonely Boy (additional motion-capture)
    • Jimmy Bennett as Billy the Lonely Boy (voice)
    • Matthew Hall as Billy the Lonely Boy (singing voice)
  • Dylan Cash as Boy on Train (voice)
  • Brendan King and Andy Pellick as the Pastry Chefs
  • Josh Eli, Rolandas Hendricks, Jon Scott, Sean Scott, Mark Mendonca, Mark Goodman, Gregory Gast, and Gordon Hart as the Waiters
  • Michael Jeter (in his final film role) as Smokey and Steamer (motion-capture only)
  • Chris Coppola as Gus the Toothless Boy and an Elf
  • Connor Matheus as the Toothless Boy (additional motion-capture)
  • Julene Renee as the Red Head Girl and an Elf
  • Phil Fondacaro, Debbie Lee Carrington, Mark Povinelli, and Ed Gale as Elves
  • Charles Fleischer as the Elf General
  • Steven Tyler as the Elf Lieutenant and the Elf Singer
  • Dante Pastula as the Little Boy
  • Eric Newton, Aidan O'Shea, Aaron Hendry, Kevin C. Carr, Bee Jay Joyer, Jena Carpenter, Karine Mauffrey, Beth Carpenter, Bill Forchion, Devin Henderson, and Sagiv Ben-Binyamin as Acrobatic Elves
  • Evan Sabara as a Young Boy



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[edit]

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

The engine that is featured in the film is modeled after Pere Marquette Railroad's no. 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 2002, the film production team approached the engine's current owner, the Steam Railroading Institute, to study the engine. 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.

The IMAX 3D version[edit]

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 in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and has become an annual Christmas film. 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.[citation needed] It was then re-released on Blu-ray 3D (stereoscopic) November 16, 2010, with new cover art.

Home media release[edit]

The film was released on DVD as separated widescreen and full screen editions and on VHS on November 22, 2005.[6] 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 and Forrest Gump.


Critical response[edit]

The film received mixed to positive reviews on its release; The Independent reported that it "is now seen by many as a classic".[7] It earned a rare grade of an "A+" from Cinemascore and a 61 out of 100 critic rating on Metacritic, indicating "generally favorable reviews." However, the film also has a "Rotten" rating of 55% from selected critics with an average rating of 6.4/10, also certifying it as "Rotten," with an average rating of 6.2/10 on Rotten Tomatoes.

On the positive side, Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, his highest rating, 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."[8] Similarly, Ebert's At the Movies co-host 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 positive review as well (a 3.5/4), stating that it was "A delightful tale guaranteed to enthrall viewers of all ages.", and ranked it as the 10th best film of 2004 (tied with The Incredibles).

However, many other critics said it was "a failed experiment," and some even said that it "gave them the creeps." The film was generally praised for its stunning visuals; however, it was largely criticized for its fake-looking and "mannequin-like" human characters, which some critics compared to zombies. Giving it 1 star out of 4, Peter Travers went so far as to say that the film was, "A failed and lifeless experiment in which everything goes wrong," and Geoff Pevere stated that "If I were a child, I'd have nightmares. Come to think of it, I did anyway." Paul Clinton from said "Those human characters in the film come across as downright... well, creepy. So The Polar Express is at best disconcerting, and at worst, a wee bit horrifying."

Box office[edit]

The film opened as the second most popular at its release, being outgrossed more than 2 to 1 by Disney/Pixar's The Incredibles, 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. Initially, the film seemed to be headed towards becoming a box office failure after its first week, due to its opening just five days after The Incredibles and 9 days before Disney's National Treasure and Nickelodeon Movies' The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, and facing even more competition in the coming weeks with Sony's Christmas with the Kranks and Nickelodeon Movies' Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. However, despite the crowded family audience marketplace, it was one of the few films to drastically improve its gross in the weeks after its opening. It dropped by only 33% in its second weekend, grossing another $15,668,101, averaging $4,293 from 3,650 venues and boosting the 12-day cumulative to $51,463,282; and, due to the winter theme, saw its gross rise by 24% over Thanksgiving weekend, making another $19,389,927, averaging $5,312 from 3,650 venues and raising the 19-day cumulative to $81,479,861. By New Year's Day 2005, The Polar Express ended up grossing nearly $160 million in the United States alone, which, though an impressive number for an animated feature, was nonetheless a disappointment against its huge 165 million budget. 25% of the world gross came from just 82 IMAX 3D theaters. It has been widely noted, however, that much of this latent revenue was due to its status as the only major motion picture available in the IMAX 3D format. 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

The American Film Institute nominated The Polar Express for its Top 10 Animated Films list.[9]

Awards and nominations[edit]

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards:

The "Polar Express Experience"[edit]

In November 2007, SeaWorld Orlando debuted the Polar Express Experience, a Motion Simulator ride based around 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,[11] 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),[12] and Warner Bros. Movie World (during the White Christmas events in 2010 and 2011).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "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. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Detroit Free Press,November 4, 2004 "Meet Chris Van Allsberg"
  6. ^, "The Polar Express (VHS)". Accessed December 20, 2014.
  7. ^ "The 175m flop so bad it could end the 3D boom". The Independent. 21 March 2011. Retrieved 2014-11-12. 
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (November 9, 2004). "The Polar Express". Roger Ebert Reviews. Retrieved 2014-11-12. 
  9. ^ "Movies Seen - 50 Nominees for AFI's 10 Top 10 (Animation)". Listology. December 5, 2012. Retrieved 2014-11-12. 
  10. ^ "Academy Awards Database: 2004 (77th)". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2014-11-12. 
  11. ^ "The Polar Express Experience at SeaWorld Orlando Begins This Friday, November 12th...". Visit Tampa Bay. November 10, 2010. Retrieved 2014-11-12. 
  12. ^ "Polar Express 4-D Experience". November 30, 2009. 

External links[edit]