The Polar Express
Director Robert Zemeckis
Producers Robert Zemeckis
Gary Goetzman
Steve Starkey
William Teitler
Executive producers Chris Van Allsburg
Tom Hanks
Jack Rapke
Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis
William Broyles, Jr.
Composer Alan Silvestri
Cinematography Don Burgess
Robert Presley
Editors R. Orlando Duenas
Jeremiah O'Driscoll
Production companies Castle Rock Entertainment
Shangri-La Entertainment
Golden Mean Productions
Distributor Warner Bros. Pictures
Release dates October 21, 2004 (Chicago International Film Festival)
November 10, 2004 (United States)
Running time 1 hour, 40 minutes (100 minutes)
Budget $165 million
Box office $309,758,904
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"This holiday season... believe..."
— Tagline
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.


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 Hero Boy tells him what happened, he tries to give her his ticket, but the Conductor tells him the tickets aren't transportable. 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 Hero 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 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 that he has lost it through the ripped pocket. Though devastated for the loss, he regains his spirit after finding out that 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. 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, including Sarah, 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.
  • The book states that Hero Boy was listening for "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." In fact, the friend is never even mentioned.
  • Most of the opening scene, up until the train stopping in front of the boy's house, is not in the book.
  • In the book, Hero Boy goes outside when the Conductor looks at him through his window. In the film, his curiosity leads him outside and the Conductor steps outside a lot later.
  • 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, Smokey and Steamer, the Waiters, and any non-generic elves do not appear in the book. This includes any scene that focuses on them.
  • 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 only mentions the children drinking hot cocoa). Some scenes are not in the book at all, like the caribou crossing, frozen lake, and abandoned toy car scenes. In fact, Hero Boy never exits the passenger cars during the journey.
  • While one of the illustrations in the book shows chefs serving the children, they are not dancing.
  • The line, "They looked like the lights of a strange ocean liner sailing on a frozen sea." is said by the narrator in the book, but by the Conductor in the film. Also, the Conductor says it in the present tense.
  • Hero Boy does not get lost at the North Pole in the book; he goes straight to seeing Santa with the Conductor and the other children.
  • The book mentions the Conductor and the children pressing through the crowd of elves. In the film, while they were seen in the middle of the crowd and must have pressed through it, they are never seen doing so.
  • In the book, Hero Boy can hear the bells while they are hanging from the reindeer's harnesses without trouble.
  • The bell does not break lose from the reindeer in the book; it is cut off by one of the elves after Hero Boy tells Santa what he wants for Christmas.
  • Hero Boy in the book never gets a hold of the bell before Santa declares it the first gift of Christmas.
  • The book states that the train "let out a loud blast from its whistle" while it departs Hero Boy's house. However, no whistle is heard in the film.
  • Hero Boy's parents do not shake the bell to try to hear its sound. They instead try to listen to it while it is shaken by Hero Boy. What they say upon not hearing any sound, however, is the same.


  • 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, after 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.
  • Several references 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 and fact books about 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 tunnel entrance the train goes 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.
  • 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 has the date of December 29, 1956, which means that the movie could not have taken place earlier than that year. He could have gotten the magazine a few days early.
  • Before Hero Boy boards the train, the alarm clock in his room shows a time of 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 shows 12:00, indicating that no time passed during the return journey.
  • 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 is yellow and has 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 to observe the train disappear when the train leaves.
    • The Conductor steps outside to invite Billy on the train, leaving a few footprints, which disappear when Billy starts running 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 the reflection of a pile of presents not seen in the actual store.
  • The train normally appears with five cars, but throughout the film, it changes 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 reaches under her seat for the hot chocolate she saved for Billy.
  • When Hero Girl's ticket gets stuck on the train's air intake, it disappears in one shot.
  • 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. He should have 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, 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 noises the caribou make in the film are actually those of elk.
  • One shot of the train on the Ice Lake shows it heading towards an iceberg, though it crashes into it much later than it would have in real life.
  • 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 shot.
  • As the train goes up the mountain before crossing the bridge, the cars curve around the bend to match the track, as though they were made of rubber. This was done because, had they not curved, they would clip the mountain.
  • All of the cars' windows are fully lit from the inside throughout the movie. However, the abandoned toy car has no lights inside.
  • In the first shot of the elves marching at the North Pole Square, one elf is static.
  • After the train stops and the children get off, 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 tells the Conductor about Billy staying behind. They all reappear in the next shot, but a 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.
  • The number of children standing at the North Pole Square 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.
  • The elves, when they bungee jump to catch the star, fall faster than the star does.
  • 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.
  • The electric guitars played in Elf Singer's band are not plugged in.
  • When the train arrives at the North Pole Square, it is in the middle of the street the entire time. However, in the overview shot of the train circling the tree, it has shifted to the right a little bit.
  • After Hero Boy leaves the bell on the table and walks away, his reflection can be seen on the bell, but it suddenly disappears.

In Other Languages

Language Name Meaning
Latin America El expreso polar The Polar Express
Spain Polar Express Polar Express
French (France) Le Pôle Express The Pole Express
French (Quebec) Boréal Express Boreal Express
German Der Polarexpress The Polarexpress
Greek Το Πολικό Εξπρες The Polar Express
Polish Ekspres Polarny Polar Express
Italian Polar Express Polar Express
Portuguese (Brazil) Polar Express Polar Express
Portuguese (Portugal) O Expresso Polar The Polar Express
Dutch The Polar Express The Polar Express
Norwegian Polarekspressen Polar Express
Swedish Polarexpressen The Polar Express
Finnish Napapiirin Pikajuna Arctic Circle Express
Russian Polyarnyy Ekspress (Полярный экспресс) Polar Express
Chinese Jídì Tèkuài (极地特快) Polar Express
Japanese Pōrā ekusupuresu (ポーラー・エクスプレス) Polar Express





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