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. The Conductor lets the boy board the train. The boy meets other children on board, including a girl and a know-it-all kid. When the train goes to pick up Billy the Lonely Boy, 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 and the Hero Girl stows away one cup under her seat to give to Billy, who is alone in the observation car. The Hero Girl and Conductor deliver the hot chocolate cup to Billy, but the Hero Boy discovers the Hero Girl’s ticket left on her seat and unpunched. He tries to return the ticket, but he loses it. After the ticket is abused by the wind and animals, it slips back in the train. The Hero 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 passenger cars. The Hero Boy finds the lost ticket and pursues the Hero Girl and Conductor on the rooftops.
Losing the Heor Girl and Conductor, the Hero Boy meets a Hobo, who claims he is the owner of the train and 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 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 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's pin. As the ice cracks, the Conductor orders Steamer to get 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. The Hero Boy is scared off by one puppet, the puppet of the evil Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol 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 form lines while the Hero Boy and Hero Girl see Billy depressed and alone in the observation car. They try to convince Billy to go but the carriage is uncoupled and rolls downhill backwards, but stops on a turntable after Hero Boy applies the brakes by turning the brake wheel. The trio explore the city 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 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 sound. Santa entrusts the Hero 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 children prepare to head home. They request the Hero Boy to show the bell but he finds that he has lost it through 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 Hero Boy’s sister, Sarah wakes him up to open presents, including the bell he lost. Their parents hear nothing and the Hero Boy leaves it on the table. The narrator ends the story by saying that, as time went on, all of his friends lost their ability to hear the bell, but he, even though he has grown old, can still hear it like anyone else who truly believes.
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.
- Most of the opening scene, up until when the train stops in front of the boy's house, is not in the book.
- In the book, Hero Boy goes outside due to the Conductor looking at him through his window. In the film, he is only led by his curiosity and the Conductor does not step outside the train until sometime after Hero Boy gets outside.
- The book says that the Conductor helps Hero Boy onto the train by pulling his arm. In the film, he jumps onto the train just as it leaves.
- Several characters such as Hero Girl, Know-it-All, Billy, the Hobo and Smokey and Steamer do not appear in the book. This includes most of their scenes.
- Most of the events occurring during the trip to the North Pole are not emphasized as much in the book, such as the hot chocolate scene (the book simply mentions the children drinking cocoa). Some are not in the book at all, like the caribou crossing, frozen lake and abandoned toy car scenes.
- While one of the illustrations in the book shows chefs serving the children, they are not dancing.
- Hero Boy does not get lost in the North Pole in the book; he goes straight to seeing Santa with the Conductor and the other children.
- In the book, the bell does not break lose from the reindeer; it is cut off by one of the elves after Hero Boy tells Santa that he wants one of the silver bells from his sleigh.
- Hero Boy does not get a hold of the bell until Santa gives it too him.
- Many of the shots in the film replicate illustrations from the book.
- This is the first feature-length film of several things:
- The first animated film to be entirely in digital capture.
- The first film to be released in 35 mm and IMAX 3D.
- This is the second film to be based off of a book by Chris Van Allsburg. The first is Jumanji from 1995.
- This is Warner Bros.' last theatrical film to be rated G.
- 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.
- The film makes several references related to Chris Van Allsburg, the author of the book and executive producer for the film:
- While the film never mentioned Hero Boy's name, several art books and fact books related to the film say that it is 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 off of Pere Marquette 1225, an N1-class locmotive 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 exit from the tunnel the train went through during the lost ticket scene.
- After the train picks up Hero Boy, it passes by Herpolsheimer's, an old department store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Van Allsburg's hometown. The film's grand premiere was also held in Grand Rapids.
- The film marks Michael Jeter's last film role.
- Before Hero Boy boards the train, the clock shows the time to be 11:55, the same time it was when the train arrives at the North Pole, meaning that no time has passed from when Hero Boy boarded the train to when he was dropped off at his house.
- Several references to the Back to the Future films, which were also directed by Robert Zemeckis, are made in the film:
- When Hero Boy pulls the emergency brake, the track level view of the locomotive's pilot coming to a halt right at the camera is similar to the same view in Back to the Future III when Carla 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.
- In the scene when Smokey and Steamer are trying to catch the pin, a flux capacitor from Back to the Future can be seen briefly.
- The soldier doll that Hero Boy plays with on Christmas morning can also be seen in the abandoned toy car.
- The first time Hero Boy goes downstairs, a red snowman skirt is on the tree, but on Christmas morning, it changes to 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 when his parents visit the room and reappears when Hero Boy grabs it to go see the train.
- For most of the film, the train appears five cars long, but that number changes throughout the film from as little as three to as many as over twenty.
- When the Conductor is punching Hero Boy's ticket, holes are seen flying out of the puncher and onto Hero Boy's face. However, more holes are seen landing on his face than were actually punched.
- Hero Boy finds Hero Girl's ticket on her seat. However, it is not there when she goes to take the cup of hot chocolate to Billy.
- When Hero Girl's ticket gets stuck on the train's air intake, it disappears and reappears in the following shots.
- When Hero Boy and the Hobo are skiing atop the train, the camera angle pans several times. 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, travelling on more than two cars.
- No coal marks or stains are seen on Hero Boy after he gets out of the coal tender.
- The noise the caribou make in the film is actually that of an elk.
- As the train goes up the mountain before crossing thr bridge, the cars curve around the bend to match the track, as though they were made of rubber. This was done because, in reality, the cars would scrape the mountain.
- Whenever the train is shown during the movie, all of the cars' windows are fully lit from the inside. However, the car containing the damaged and unwanted toys appears very dark and unlit from the inside.
- The number of children standing at the center of the North Pole keeps changing.
- 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.
- When the silver bell comes off the harness and bounces on the ground, the leather straps attached to it do not twist and tangle like in the normal manner.