The Polar Express (film)
|The Polar Express|
|Directed by||Robert Zemeckis|
|Based on||The Polar Express|
by Chris Van Allsburg
|Narrated by||Tom Hanks|
|Music by||Alan Silvestri|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros. Pictures|
|Box office||$314.1 million|
The Polar Express is a 2004 American computer-animated Christmas musical adventure film 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. It 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.
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. Its 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 $286 million worldwide during its initial run, and $314 million with subsequent re-releases, 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.
On the night of Christmas Eve, 1956, a boy, who doubts of the existence of Santa Claus, notices a steam locomotive riding on the street while on his bed during the night. Named the Polar Express, the train is on its way to the North Pole. Initially reluctant, the boy jumps aboard and meets a spirited girl and a smart know-it-all boy. The train then picks up a boy named Billy, who sits alone in the train's observation car and is given hot chocolate by the girl.
The ride to the North Pole involves a dance sequence where the passengers are served hot chocolate; the girl losing her ticket and the boy saving it; and the boy encountering a hobo that skis with him on the top of the train and tells him stories about Santa Claus and ghosts. There are obstacles along the ride, including a herd of caribou cleared by the conductor pulling Smokey's beard, causing him to let out animal-like noises; and the throttle's split pin coming off and accelerating the train uncontrollably while on a sheet of ice that nearly breaks beneath it, during which the lost split pin is replaced by Smokey's hair-pin, allowing the conductor to steer the train back onto the tracks.
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. However, the boy accidentally uncouples the car; sending it hurtling along a route towards a railway turntable in Santa's workshop. The children make their way through an elf command center and a gift sorting office before sliding down a massive slide that leads them to a funnel before being dumped into a giant sack of presents, where they discover that the know-it-all has stowed away. The elves escort them out before Santa and his reindeer arrive.
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 returns 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 returns to the train as the children board to go back home, but the boy discovers that he lost the bell through a hole in his pocket he unconsciously ripped while getting out of bed. He returns home and awakens on Christmas morning to find a present containing his lost bell with a note from Santa. He and his younger sister Sarah joyfully ring the bell, while their parents, not believing in Santa, do not hear the bell and lament that the bell is broken. The boy reflects on his friends and sister eventually growing deaf to the bell over the years as their belief faded. However, despite his now old age, the bell still rings for him, as it does "for all who truly believe".
- Tom Hanks as Hero Boy (motion-capture), Hero Boy's father, Conductor, Hobo, Scrooge puppet, Santa Claus, and the Narrator
- Nona Gaye as Hero Girl
- Chantel Valdivieso as Hero Girl (additional motion-capture)
- Meagan Moore as Hero Girl (singing voice)
- Tinashe as Hero Girl (motion-capture model)
- Peter Scolari as Billy the Lonely Boy (motion-capture)
- Eddie Deezen as Know-It-All
- Jimmy Pinchak as Know-It-All (additional motion-capture)
- Michael Jeter as Smokey and Steamer
- Leslie Zemeckis as Sister Sarah (motion-capture) and Hero Boy's mother
- Isabella Peregrina as Sister Sarah (voice)
- Ashly Holloway as Sister Sarah (additional motion-capture)
- Dylan Cash as Boy on Train (voice)
- Brendan King and Andy Pellick as Pastry Chefs
- Josh Eli, Rolandas Hendricks, Jon Scott, Sean Scott, Mark Mendonca, Mark Goodman, Gregory Gast, and Gordon Hart as Waiters
- Julene Renee as Red Head Girl and an Elf
- Chris Coppola as Gus the Toothless Boy and an Elf
- Connor Matheus as Toothless Boy (additional motion-capture)
- Phil Fondacaro, Debbie Lee Carrington, Mark Povinelli, and Ed Gale as Elves
- Charles Fleischer as Elf General
- Steven Tyler as Elf Lieutenant and Elf Singer
Hanks optioned the book in 1999 with the hopes of playing the conductor and Santa Claus. 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." 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". The two acquired the rights to the book the following year. 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. 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. The idea of a Scrooge puppet was conceived when Zemeckis looked at his toys he used to have, one of which was a puppet.
Hanks plays five roles in the film including that of a small child (whose voice would later be dubbed in by Daryl Sabara). Initially Zemeckis considered having him play every role, but after trying this, Hanks grew exhausted, and they whittled down the number.
The soundtrack of the film, titled The Polar Express: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, was released on November 2, 2004 by Reprise Records, Warner Music Group and Warner Sunset Records. The song, "Believe", written by Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri, was nominated for Best Original Song at the 77th Academy Awards. It was sung at the 77th Academy Awards show by original performer Josh Groban with Beyoncé. It gained a Grammy Award in 2006.
The album was certified Gold by the RIAA in November 2007. Having sold 724,000 copies in the United States, it is the best-selling film soundtrack/holiday album hybrid since Nielsen SoundScan started tracking music sales in 1991.
Most of the original orchestral score featured in the film was not released on the soundtrack and has never been released. The soundtrack mostly comprises only songs featured in the film. A limited number of promotional "For Your Consideration" CDs, intended to showcase the film's score to reviewers of the film, were released in 2005. This CD contained nearly the complete score, but none of the film's songs. Various bootleg versions of the soundtrack, combining both the official soundtrack album and the orchestral-only CD, have since surfaced.
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.
The Polar Express Locomotive
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 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. The engine in the movie, however, is noticeably different from the real Pere Marquette 1225, and somewhat closer to looking like an S-1 from the Erie Railroad. These include the headlight being mounted into the smokebox, like many Delaware & Hudson steam locomotives, instead of being on a platform or the cow catcher, and the whistle being mounted on the upper right hand side of the boiler mounted upright, instead of on top of the boiler, mounted horizontally. It also lacks the feedwater heater, marker lights, number boards, and builders plates the real Pere Marquette 1225 has. The cow catcher is also bigger than it is in real life, with slats extending to the pilot beam, and it also lacks a coupler.
In July 2002, Warner Bros. approached the locomotive's owner, the Steam Railroading Institute, to study the engine. The engine in the film is modeled from the PM No. 1225's drawings and the sounds from recordings made of the 1225 operating under steam. The whistle, however, was taken from Sierra Railway No. 3.
A video game based on the film was released on November 2, 2004 for GameCube, Game Boy Advance, PlayStation 2 and Windows, developed by Blue Tongue Entertainment and published by THQ. 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.
The film has also spawned multiple real-world holiday train-travel experiences based loosely on the film's train journey all over the United States, as well as Canada, and even the United Kingdom under license from Rail Events Inc.
These include the Polar Express train ride held at the Grand Canyon Railway, the Polar Express Train Ride of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, the Polar Express Train Ride of the Texas State Railroad, and The Polar Express Train Ride at Aspen Crossing. The Pere Marquette 1225 itself pulls a similarly-themed Christmas train, albeit under the name of the North Pole Express.
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, powered by one of two American-built S160 2-8-0 locomotive's No's. 5197 & 6046 courtesy of Churnet Valley Railway in Staffordshire. The Cholsey and Wallingford Railway and the Spa Valley Railway will both be running steam-hauled Polar Expresses in 2021. The only other known steam operated Polar Express train rides in the UK are by Vintage Trains, which operated Great Western 4-6-0 Hall class No. 4965 Rood Ashton Hall for the ride, albeit being renamed Polar Star, and PNP Events' Polar Express Train Rides in the Yorkshire Dales,South Devon, Royal Tonbridge Wells and Oxfordshire. The Polar Express Train Ride also operates on the Mid-Norfolk Railway, Wensleydale Railway, South Devon Railway and the Seaton Tramway operate the "Polar Express Tram Ride".
The Polar Express Experience
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, 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, Stone Mountain, Dollywood (during the annual Smoky Mountain Christmas event), Vancouver Aquarium (2009—2010), and Warner Bros. Movie World (during the White Christmas events in 2010 and 2011).
IMAX 3-D version
The film opened at #2 behind The Incredibles, and earned $23.3 million 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 $30.6 million since its Wednesday launch. The weekend total also included $2.1 million 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 $15.7 million, averaging $4,293 from 3,650 venues and boosting the 12-day cumulative gross to $51.5 million. In its third weekend, which was Thanksgiving weekend, the film increased by 24%, earning $19.4 million, averaging $5,312 from 3,650 venues and raising the 19-day cumulative gross to $81.5 million. The film has made $187.2 million in North America, and $126.3 million overseas for a total worldwide gross of $313.5 million (including all re-releases). 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.
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 TVTango.com.
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 originally came out in theaters. 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.
According to review aggregator Metacritic, which reports a weighted average score of 61 out of 100 based on 36 critics, The Polar Express received "generally favorable reviews". On Rotten Tomatoes, 56% of 208 critics gave the film a positive review, and an average rating 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." The Independent reported in 2011 that the film "is now seen by many as a classic". CinemaScore reported that audiences gave the film a rare "A+" grade.
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." 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" 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." 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. 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." 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."
The character design and animation were criticized for dipping into the uncanny valley. 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". 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." Geoff Pevere of the Toronto Star stated, "If I were a child, I'd have nightmares. Come to think of it, I did anyway." Paul Clinton from CNN called it "at best disconcerting, and at worst, a wee bit horrifying". 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."
In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated The Polar Express for its Top 10 Animated Films list. 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). 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."
Awards and nominations
|Award||Date of ceremony||Category||Recipient(s)||Result||Ref(s)|
|Academy Awards||February 27, 2005||Best Sound Editing||Randy Thom and Dennis Leonard||Nominated|||
|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||Nominated|
|Grammy Awards||February 8, 2006||Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media||Won|
|Visual Effects Society||February 16, 2005||Outstanding Performance by an Animated Character in an Animated Motion Picture||Michael Jeter, David Schaub, Renato Dos Anjos and Roger Vizard for the Steamer character||Nominated|||
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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.
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