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Western Animation: The Polar Express

The Polar Express is The Film of the Book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg (who served as one of the film's executive producers). In the film/book, a a young boy, straining to hear the silver bells of Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve, instead hears a train's whistle. He goes outside to find a magical train, the eponymous Polar Express, which was sent to pick up the boy and hundreds of other children to go the North Pole and Santa's workshop. There, one of the passengers will receive "the first gift of Christmas".

The film was directed by Robert Zemeckis with Tom Hanks (who also served as an executive producer) doing much of the voice work and movements. Despite Zemeckis having made some legendary movies, the movie is unfortunately remembered for sliding into the Uncanny Valley. It was also dedicated to Michael Jeter, who had spent his final acting role on this movie. Very mixed opinions were dished about The Polar Express; some critics considered it to be a faithful adaptation, while others relentlessly panned the visual effects, especially the so-called "dead eye syndrome". It was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Original Song), but received mixed reviews from critics, getting a 56% rating on the Tomatometer. When it comes down to it, there's really no middle ground with the film. It's a borderline example of Love It or Hate It.

Regardless though, it did do reasonably well at the box office (especially in IMAX 3D theaters, where it has been re-released during the holiday season several times) and the majority of movie-goers admit it is a good Christmas film if nothing else with some pretty impressive scenery shots.


The Film of the Book provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: A good deal, seeing as it is a 100 minute long movie, based on a 32-page book that can be read in less than 10 minutes.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: The protagonist is doubtful Santa Claus exists, even though he’s riding a magic train. Even when he reaches the North Pole which is full of elves and an entire Christmas town he has a hard time believing Santa is in charge.
  • Award Bait Song: "Believe" and perhaps "When Christmas Comes to Town".
  • Boring Return Journey
  • Broken Record: Quite literally, where the "ding-a-ling" part from "Silver Bells" repeats over and over during one scene.
  • Cool Train: They were dead-on with the Berkshire, and it quickly reveals itself to be a magic train, upping the cool factor.
  • Dead All Along: The Hobo double-subverts this; he disappears mysteriously after asking the boy if he believes in ghosts, then comes back about a minute later, leaving room for doubt regarding exactly what he is; then, his status as a ghost is finally clarified beyond the shadow of a doubt once he dematerializes at Flat Top Tunnel.
    • Well an obvious clue before then is that he managed to make a campfire on the top of a speeding train in winter.
    • A deleted scene on the DVD explains how the Hobo lost his life.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Ebeneezer Scrooge gets one as a puppet in The Polar Express http://www.slashfilm.com/zemeckis-scrooge-had-a-cameo-in-polar-express/
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Most of the film takes place in one night. Lampshaded by Know-It-All Boy, by the way.
  • Foreshadowing: "By the way... do you believe in ghosts?"
  • Ink-Suit Actor: Tom Hanks and Steven Tyler.
  • Jerk Ass With A Heart Of Gold: The Hobo is very rough around the edges, he uses a puppet of Ebeneezer Scrooge to scare the main character, he is also very vague and unhelpful, whenever he answers the kid's questions but he also saves his life on numerous occasions as well
    • Trickster Mentor: How others see him though. After all how can you answer something about faith when it's your own decision to believe or not. Basically he tells Hero Boy he has to make up his own mind. Yeah the puppet thing was a little mean but it can been seen as giving him a little push. After all it's a once-in-a-lifetime ride and he won't get another chance.
  • Just Train Wrong: Sometimes so obvious that it borders on Willing Suspension of Disbelief, even if you ignore things like the vehicles bending around a mountain peak or a 100% decline with most likely ice-covered rail surfaces that no adhesion locomotive in the world can possibly climb (the Polar Express has to get back to Michigan somehow, mind you).
    • The length of the train keeps varying from five to about a dozen coaches. The inside scenes, however, show a consist of only three cars: the used toys car behind the locomotive, the car with the kids, and the observation car at the end.
    • On the ice surface of Glacier Gulch, the engineer seems to steer the Berkshire by rotating the drivers back and forth to control the train's slide, like throwing a ship's propellers into reverse to help with a turn. Rule of Cool is driving the train at this point.
    • Averted in that the Berkshire is a real-life locomotive, even with her real-life number. It was obviously too tempting to put Pere Marquette #1225 on a Christmas train. Even the sounds were taken from the real #1225.
    • On the other hand, if you want to nitpick, the Pere Marquette N-1 Berkshires, like all small-driver, large-wheelbase locomotives, were used to pull freight trains.
    • Then again, it is Santa's train, so...
  • Mondegreen: An odd example, because the erroneous lyrics are actually sung by the artist. In the Award Bait Song "Believe," there is a line that says "Hear the melody that's playing." For some reason, there's a version of the song (which has been played on the radio) in which Josh Groban sings this as "Hear the lemody that's playing."
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The girl left her ticket safely on her seat, which she was going to return to. The boy proceeds to take the ticket to give it to her for some reason and promptly loses it.
  • No Name Given: Most of the characters don't have any names. The subtitles in the DVD and Blu-ray releases even refer to the characters as "Hero Boy", "Hero Girl", "Conductor", etc. The exceptions are Billy the Lonely Boy, the main character's sister Sarah, and of course Santa Claus. Also, apparently Know-It-All Kid's name is Lenny.
  • Object Tracking Shot: A popular shot showing off the CGI.
  • Or Was It a Dream?: During the train ride, the Hero Boy asks the hobo "Are you saying that this all just... a dream?" He replies "You said it, kid! Not me." Later, there's the bell to indicate the experience was real.
  • Overcrank: During the last verse of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" as the bell slowly falls off...
  • Power Glows: Subtly used on Santa; it earned him the distinction of appearing "radioactive" to some viewers
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: When an otherwise good kid does one naughty thing at the last minute, the elf in charge of the naughty and nice lists takes pity on him and lets him on the good list anyway, but marks it against him for next year.
  • Red Herring: There's a whole song about the hot chocolate and the single rule about it — "Never-ever let it cool". during the song a girl sets aside a second up of hot chocolate and puts it under her seat to take to another child. There is no "chocolate-cooling" rule breaking involved, though.
  • Santa Claus: Obviously. The entire point of riding the Polar Express is to travel the North Pole to meet the big guy.
  • Scenery Porn: All over the place. Especially during the scenes at the North Pole.
  • Secret Test of Character: The whole trip seems to be a series of tests of faith (on Santa Claus) for the children, in particular for the protagonist. This is sort of lampshaded in the end, where everyone's role is revealed by the tickets they received.
    • The Hobo seems to have played Devil's Advocate (by implying the whole thing was a dream.)
  • Shout-Out: "I've wanted to do that my whole life!". So did Doc Brown.
    • Well, both films were directed by the same guy.
      • And in a futher nod to Back to the Future, a flux capacitor can be seen mounted on the locomotive's boiler backhead when the cotter pin shears off. Guess that explains how the train appears to travel inside of a time bubble...
      • The Hobo makes a reference to Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol by playing with a toy puppet of Ebeneezer Scrooge. He uses the puppet to scare the protagonist, and calls the kid a Scrooge, a doubter, and an unbeliever. This scene crosses into Nightmare Fuel territory even after its revealed the hobo was just being a Jerk Ass to scare the main character.
  • Silent Whisper: When the main character tells Santa what he wants for Christmas.
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: "I'll tell you what's grass! Our— ow!!!!"
  • Those Two Guys: Smokey and Steamer, the engineers.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: Time gets an ... interesting ... treatment here. Almost the entire movie takes place five minutes to midnight, Christmas Eve. The clock only advances to midnight when Santa literally warps out of his North Pole village.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After the scene with the frozen lake, we never see the two guys from the engine ever again.

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alternative title(s): The Polar Express; The Polar Express
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