On the night of Christmas Eve in the late-1950s, Hero Boy is awoken to a train called the Polar Express pulling up in front of his house that is about to embark to the North Pole. When the Conductor invites Hero Boy onboard, he is reluctant, but changes his mind and jumps on as the train leaves. He meets other children onboard, including Hero Girl and a Know-It-All kid. Later, the train picks up another boy named Billy, who also declines at first, but the train is already moving too fast when he changes his mind, so the Hero Boy applies the emergency brake to let him on. The Conductor summons a waiter team who serve the children hot chocolate. The Hero Girl stows away one cup under her seat to give to Billy, who is alone in the observation car. When she and the Conductor deliver the cup to Billy, the Hero Boy discovers the Hero Girl's ticket left on her seat and unpunched. He tries returning it, but loses it to the wind. After the ticket is abused by the wind and animals, it slips back on the train. The Conductor comes to punch Hero Girl's ticket, but when she finds it missing, he takes her for a walk on the rooftops of the passenger cars. Fearing she will get thrown off the train, the Hero Boy finds the lost ticket and pursues the Hero Girl and Conductor on the rooftops.
Losing the Hero Girl and Conductor, the Hero Boy meets a mysterious Hobo, who claims he is the owner of the train and the North Pole. Desperate to find the Hero Girl, the Hobo helps the boy by skiing down the rooftops. The Hero Boy jumps into the tender of the locomotive right before they reach Flat Top Tunnel and finds the girl driving the train. After the driver, Steamer and his aide, Smokey replace the light, Steamer witnesses something unusual ahead and orders to stop the train. The Hero Boy applies the brakes and they all witness a caribou crossing. The Conductor pulls Smokey's beard, causing him to let out animal-like sound effects that make the caribou horde clear out. The train continues on, but 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 fix the throttle. As the ice cracks, the Conductor orders Steamer to get the train to the other side of the tracks, who does so successfully before the ice lake shatters completely. The Hero Boy returns the Hero Girl's lost ticket for the Conductor to punch. The Conductor takes the two kids to a room with abandoned toys where the Hero Boy is scared off by an Ebenezer Scrooge puppet operated by the Hobo, and retreats to the observation car where the Hero Girl and Billy are singing. The trio sees auroras and the train finally reaches the North Pole.
Upon arrival, the children notice a lack of elves, who are gathering at the Square where Santa will give the first gift of Christmas to one of the children. The train reaches the Square where the children get off and form lines while the Hero Boy and Hero Girl see Billy depressed and alone in the observation car. They try to convince him to come, but the carriage is uncoupled and rolls downhill backwards. It stops on a turntable after Hero Boy applies the brakes by turning the brake wheel. The trio explores the city until falling on a pile of presents, which are transported in a giant bag carried by a pair of zeppelins. The bag is placed on Santa's sleigh where the children are removed by the elves. With the reindeer being prepared, Santa Claus 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 beautiful sound. Santa entrusts the Hero Boy with the bell as the first gift of Christmas. Santa leaves with his reindeer and a band plays in celebration.
The elves use a handcar to re-couple the observation car back to the train and the children prepare to head home. They request the Hero Boy to show the bell, but he finds he has lost it through the ripped pocket. Though devastated for the loss, he regains his spirit after finding out Santa has been to Billy's house. The Hero Boy is taken home and everyone else bids him farewell. The next morning, the Hero Boy's sister, Sarah wakes him up to open presents, including the bell he lost, which had fallen onto Santa's sleigh. Hero Boy and Sarah both enjoy the sound of the bell, but their parents hear nothing and think it is broken. Hero Boy as an adult reflects on his friends and Sarah hearing the bell, but growing deaf to it over the years. However, even though has grown old, he can still hear its ring "as it does all who truly believe."
- Hero Boy
- Sister Sarah
- Hero Boy's Mother
- Hero Boy's Father
- Hero Girl
- Know it All Boy
- The Conductor
- Ebenezer Scrooge puppet
- Tom Hanks: Hero Boy (motion-capture and adult voice), Conductor, Hobo, Santa Claus, Hero Boy's father and Ebenezer Scrooge puppet
- Leslie Zemeckis: Sister Sarah (motion-capture), Hero Boy's mother
- Eddie Deezen: Know-It-All
- Nona Gaye: Hero Girl
- Peter Scolari: Billy the Lonely Boy (motion-capture)
- Dylan Cash: Boy on Train
- Brendan King and Andy Pellick: Pastry Chefs
- Josh Eli, Gregory Gast, Gordon Hart, Rolandas Hendricks, Mark Goodman, Mark Mendonca, Jon Scott, and Sean Scott: Waiters
- Michael Jeter: Smokey and Steamer (voice)
- Chris Coppola: An Elf and Gus the Toothless Boy (motion-capture)
- Julene Renee: Blonde Girl and an Elf
- Chris Coppola, Phil Fondacaro, Ed Gale, Debbie Lee Carrington, Mark Povinelli, and Julene Renee: Elves
- Charles Fleischer: Elf General
- Steven Tyler: Elf Lieutenant and Elf Singer
- Dante Pastula: 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: Acrobatic Elves
- Evan Sabara: Young Boy (additional motion-capture)
Tom Hanks first brought the book to the attention of Robert Zemeckis in 1999 in hopes of playing the Conductor and Santa Claus. One of the conditions was for the film to be live-action, but Zemeckis thought it would be too expensive and lack the look, feel, and magic of the illustrations he felt was important to the story. Zemeckis considered three ways to make the film, which included motion-capture or having live costumed actors bluescreened into CGI environments or on real sets with the footage digitally edited into paintings. After building three sets to test each technique, the filmmakers settled on motion-capture as it provided more creative freedom and less stress than what came with live-action. Tom Hanks would eventually agree to it too after much insistance from Robert helped him understand what he wanted to achieve.
Differences from the book
- The film puts more emphasis on Hero Boy's crisis of faith and states it directly, while it is only implied in the book.
- The book says Hero Boy was listening for "a sound – a sound a friend had told me I'd never hear," while in the film, the narrator says, "a sound I was afraid I'd never hear."
- Most of the events up until the train arrives are not in the book.
- The train in the book lacks any "Polar Express" lettering.
- In the book, Hero Boy goes outside when the Conductor looks at him through his window. In the film, he is led by his curiosity and the Conductor steps outside later on.
- The book says the Conductor helps Hero Boy onto the train by pulling his outstretched arm. In the film, he jumps onto the train as it leaves.
- Several characters such as Hero Girl, Know-It-All, Billy, the Hobo, Smokey and Steamer, the waiters, and any non-generic elves are not in the book, though a girl sitting next to the boy in one illustration inspired Hero Girl.
- The tickets are not featured in the book.
- The book simply states the children drink hot cocoa onboard the train and shows a pair of chefs serving it normally. The film turns it into a musical number with the addition of waiters and features hot chocolate instead. Also, unlike the film, the children are also served nougat-centered candies in the book.
- Most of the events during the trip to the North Pole are not in the book, including the caribou crossing, frozen lake, and abandoned toy car scenes.
- Corkscrew Mountain is based on a mountain seen in the book, though the original mountain has tracks going around once instead of spiraling up.
- The Conductor quotes a line from the book comparing the lights of the North Pole to that of an ocean liner, which is said by the narrator in the book in the past tense while the Conductor says it in the present tense.
- The events of the children getting lost at the North Pole are not in the book.
- The book mentions the Conductor and the children pressing through the crowd of elves, which likely also happened in the film, but not on-screen.
- In the book, Hero Boy can already hear the silver bells from the moment they arrive at the North Pole. Also, he does not get a hold of one until Santa gives it to him, and it is cut off by one of the elves at Santa's request rather than it falling loose.
- The book says the train blew its whistle while leaving Hero Boy's house, but no whistle is heard in the film.
- The note that came with the bell does not have the word "better" at the start of the second sentence in the book like it does in the film.
- The book does not make clear if Hero Boy's parents tried to ring the bell themselves like they are seen doing in the film. They could have tried listening when Hero Boy rang it.
- Many of the shots in the film replicate illustrations from the book.
- This film marks:
- The first feature-length film to be entirely in digital capture and to be released in 35 mm and IMAX 3D.
- The second film to be based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg after Jumanji in 1995. It is also the only film based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg not in the Jumanji franchise.
- Both Warner Bros.' last theatrical film to be rated G and Michael Jeter's last film role before his passing.
- On some foreign DVDs of the film, such as the UK DVD release, the "Piracy. It's a crime." promo is seen, but on the majority of DVD releases, this is not used, possibly due to it being a bit too frightening for a family audience or because Warner Bros. never used it on American DVD releases of their films.
- Since adult actors did the motion-capture for the children characters most of the time, over-sized props were used to get the movement right.
- Several allusions to Chris Van Allsburg, the author of the book and executive producer for the film, are made:
- While the film never mentioned Hero Boy's name, several art books about the film call him Chris, named after Chris Van Allsburg.
- A University of Michigan pennant appears in Hero Boy's room. Van Allsburg studied at the University of Michigan.
- The locomotive in both the book and the film is based on Pere Marquette 1225, an N1-class locomotive which Van Allsburg used to play on as a child while attending football games at Michigan State University where it was on static display at the time. The number 1225 can be seen on the keystone of the tunnel entrance the train goes through during the ticket journey.
- After the train picks up Hero Boy, it passes Herpolsheimer's, an old department store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Van Allsburg's hometown. The film's premiere was also held in Grand Rapids.
- Fritz the Dog appears on top of the bedpost in Hero Boy's room, just like it did in the book.
- The magazine Hero Boy pulls out of his drawer is dated December 29, 1956, even though the film takes place on December 24. This means either the movie takes place no earlier than 1957 or Hero Boy got the magazine early.
- This is contradicted in The Polar Express: The Movie: Trip to the North Pole, which states the story takes place in 1955.
- Before the train arrives at Hero Boy's house, the alarm clock in his room shows it is 11:55, the same time when the train arrives at the North Pole, meaning that no time has passed. When he is dropped off, a clock in the living room reads 12:00, the same time Santa left the North Pole. This indicates only five minutes passed during the journey.
- The address of Billy's home is 11344 Edbrooke Avenue. This was the childhood home of Robert Zemeckis, the director of the movie.
- Several references to the Back to the Future films, which were also directed by Robert Zemeckis, are made in the film:
- Early in the film, Hero Boy looks at a newspaper showing a crowd of department store Santas protesting with one of their signs reading "Say yes to Lone Pine Mall Construction." Lone Pine Mall is a location in Back to the Future.
- When Hero Boy pulls the emergency brake to let Billy get on the train, the track level view of the locomotive's pilot coming to a halt right at the camera is similar to the view in Back to the Future Part III when Clara is leaving and applies the emergency brake to stop the train after overhearing about Emmett "Doc" Brown's heartbreak.
- After Hero Boy pulls the train whistle, he says, "I've wanted to do that my whole life." Emmett Brown does and says the same thing in Back to the Future Part III.
- While Smokey and Steamer are trying to catch the pin, a flux capacitor from Back to the Future can be seen briefly.
- Back to the Future was released in 1985, the same year as the the book, The Polar Express.
- The soldier doll Hero Boy plays with on Christmas morning and the teddy bear in Sarah's bedroom can also be seen in the abandoned toy car.
- A picture of Babe Ruth, an American professional baseball player, is seen in the wall in Hero Boy's bedroom next to the window just like in the book.
- The film was released in theaters a year before the book's 20th anniversary. It would have its home video release and a theatrical re-release a year later, coinciding with said anniversary.
- The first time Hero Boy goes downstairs, a red snowman skirt is on the tree, but on Christmas morning, it is yellow with bells on it.
- Early in the film when Hero Boy is in his room, his robe is seen on the bedpost closest to the bedroom door. However, it disappears briefly when his parents visit the room and reappears when Hero Boy looks outside to see the train.
- There are several moments when footprints left in the snow disappear too soon.
- The footprints and skid marks Hero Boy leaves while walking outside disappear when the train leaves.
- The Conductor steps outside to invite Billy on the train, leaving a few footprints, which disappear when Billy runs after the train.
- When the train goes up a hill and Hero Boy and the Hobo slide to the back of the observation car, Hero Boy's footprints on the car disappear.
- At Herpolsheimer's, when Know-It-All says, "I want all of them!", the window on the car displays a reflection of a present pile not seen in the actual store.
- The train normally appears with five cars, but the number of cars constantly changes throughout the film:
- Almost twenty cars are seen as the train passes by the wolves in the forest and as it crosses the North Pole Bridge.
- Seven cars are seen as Hero Boy and the Hobo jump from the second to the first car.
- After the Hero Boy gets out of the abandoned toy car, he has transported to the second to last car, meaning that the train has three cars in that scene.
- When the Conductor is punching Hero Boy's ticket, holes are seen flying out of the puncher and onto Hero Boy's face. A total of 32 punches are made, but more than 32 holes land on his face.
- Hero Boy finds Hero Girl's ticket on her seat, but it is not there when she reaches under her seat for the hot chocolate she saved for Billy.
- While Hero Girl's ticket is stuck on the air intake, it disappears in one shot.
- As Hero Boy goes into the last car where Billy is, a silhouette of the Conductor and the Hero Girl cast from the Conductor's lantern can be seen, but a shadow in real life would not cast in that manner.
- The Hobo tells Hero Boy, "You don't wanna be led down the primrose path!" However, the primrose path actually refers to an easy life. It would make more sense if he said, "garden path", which means to be deceived.
- The camera angle pans several times when Hero Boy and the Hobo are skiing atop the train. One shot is from the front of the train, showing the engine and the two fellows on the third car with two cars between them and the engine. Subsequent pans show them jumping more than three times, traveling on more than two cars.
- No coal marks or stains are seen on Hero Boy after he gets out of the coal tender.
- The sounds the caribou make in the film are actually those of elk.
- When the caribou clear the track, the Conductor says, "All ahead, slow!" This term refers to a ship with multiple engines and does not apply to a train with a single locomotive.
- When the train goes up Glacier Gulch, the warning sign displays a 179-degree gradient. However, a vertical drop is 90 degrees, so it would make more sense for the sign to say 89 degrees.
- One shot of the train on the Ice Lake shows it heading towards an iceberg, though it crashes into it much later than it should have.
- The cracking ice is not seen when the train hits the iceberg, even though this occurred after the pin pierced the ice.
- The train's distance from the other side of the Ice Lake frequently increases and decreases with each scene.
- As the train goes up Corkscrew Mountain, the cars curve around the bend in a rubber-like manner to match the track. However, had they not curved, they would clip the mountain.
- All of the cars' windows appear fully lit from outside throughout the movie, but the abandoned toy car has no lights.
- In the first shot of the elves marching at the North Pole Square, one elf is static.
- After the children get off at the Square, they line up in two rows with Hero Boy and Hero Girl at the back. However, the other children disappear when Hero Boy and Hero Girl tell the Conductor about Billy. They reappear in the next shot, but part of a building from the previous shot disappears.
- The children fling towards the front of the car when it hits the buffer on the turntable, but they should have flung towards the back since it was that end which hit the buffer.
- When the children are in the sack of presents, the blimp closes the sack over their heads, but it was shown at eye-level in the next scene.
- The height of the sack of presents constantly changes.
- The number of children standing at the Square keeps changing.
- When the elves bungee jump to catch the star, they fall faster than the star.
- When the silver bell falls off the harness and bounces on the ground, its leather straps do not twist and tangle like in the normal manner.
- Throughout the film, whenever the bell is rung, they hold it by the bell itself rather than by the tassels.
- The electric guitars played in Elf Singer's band are not plugged in.
- After Hero Boy leaves the bell on the table and walks away, his reflection on the bell disappears.
In other languages
|Arabic||القطار القطبي السريع|
|Dutch||The Polar Express|
|Esperanto||La Polusa Ekspreso|
|French||Le pôle express (France)|
Boréal Express (Quebec)
|Greek||Το πολικό εξπρές|
|Persian||قطار سریعالسیر قطبی|
|Portuguese||Polar Express (Portugal)|
O Expresso Polar (Brazil)
|Spanish||El expreso polar (Latin America)|
Polar Express (Spain)
|Vietnamese||Tàu Tốc Hành Bắc Cực|
- Main article: The Polar Express (film)/Gallery
- Schaub, David (November 15, 2005). "'The Polar Express Diary': Part 4 -- Keyframe Animation". Animation World Network.
- Cotta Vaz, Mark. Starkey, Steve. (November 4, 2004) The Art of the Polar Express, Chronicle Books. p. 8-10, 26. ISBN 978-0811846592.
- "Riding the Polar Express" Wired.
- Schaub, David (November 23, 2004). "'The Polar Express' Diary: Part 1 -- Testing and Prepping". Animation World Network.
- Schaub, David (February 15, 2005). "'The Polar Express' Diary: Part 2 -- Performance Capture & the MoCap/Anim Process". Animation World Network.
- Behind The Scenes with Tom Hanks