The elves are small dwarf-like humanoids with pointed ears who live and work at the North Pole, creating all the toys and wrapping them for Santa Claus to deliver on Christmas Eve as well as helping him keep track of all the children to make sure they are nice.
Role in the book
When the Polar Express first arrives at the North Pole, the children look outside to find no elves. The Conductor explains that they are gathering at the center of the city where Santa will give the first gift of Christmas to one of the children. Soon, the train arrives at the center where hundreds of elves are gathering. The Conductor and the children get off the train and press through the elf crowd to get to Santa's sleigh.
The elves cheer when Santa arrives. Santa chooses Hero Boy to receive the first gift of Christmas, who asks for one of the silver bells from his sleigh. One of the elves cuts a bell off the reindeer's harness at Santa's request and tosses it to him. He holds it up and declares it the first gift of Christmas as the elves cheer again.
Role in the film
Like in the book, the children see no elves right when the train arrives at the North Pole, but crowds of them are seen at the Square.
While trying to return to the Square after getting lost on the runaway observation car, Hero Boy, Hero Girl, and Billy end up at the surveillance room where they find a few elves doing last minute work. One elf reports on the last present being wrapped when an alarm sounds, alerting the elves of a naughty child. They find it to be a boy from Maplewood, New Jersey who stuck gum in his sister's hair. Being a last minute thing, they decide to give him a break, but keep a closer eye on him next year. After that, they take the pneumatic to the Square, saying it is the quickest way there. The children take the pneumatic too, but end up in the Wrapping Hall instead.
Later, the elves use a pair of zeppelins to carry the big bag of presents to the Square. However, the Conductor notices the bag is very close to the star on top of the big tree and calls out to the elves to increase their altitude, so a few of the elves jump off on parachutes, lightening the load of the zeppelins. However, the bag still hits the star, knocking it off, so more elves bungee jump off and grab it just in time, then put it back on the tree. The bag is landed on Santa's sleigh and four of the elves come to rescue the children while also saying to have known they were there the whole time. Initially, Billy is hesitant to let go of his present until one of the elves assures him it will be safe.
The elves start the processional. First, they bring the reindeer to Santa's sleigh and line them up in front of it, then bring the silver bells to hang on their harness, all while singing "Spirit of the Season." Next, it is time for Santa's arrival, so the elves, along with the children and the Conductor, sing "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" right before he shows up. At that moment, the elves cheer while standing on top of each other, blocking Hero Boy's view. They applaud again when Hero Boy is chosen as the one to receive the first gift of Christmas, then carry him to the sleigh and cheer once more when Santa holds up the silver bell. After Santa disappears into the sky, the elves toss their hats into the air and start a party. An elf band performs "Rockin' on Top of the World" while the others dance with many of them waltzing.
Meanwhile, four of the elves get a handcar and use it to re-couple the observation car to the rest of the train, then fall down in exhaustion.
- Early in production of the film, the filmmakers were indecisive about whether or not the elves would be motion-captured like most of the human characters. It was eventually decided they would.
- Schaub, David (November 23, 2004). "'The Polar Express' Diary: Part 1 -- Testing and Prepping". Animation World Network.