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Western Animation / The Polar Express

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"One thing about trains: it doesn't matter where they're going. What matters is deciding to get on."
The Conductor

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.

Sometime in the middle of the 20th century, a young boy, while straining to hear the silver bells of Santa Claus's sleigh on Christmas Eve, instead hears a train's whistle. He goes outside and finds a magical train, the eponymous Polar Express, which has been sent to pick up the boy along with hundreds of other children and take them to the North Pole, where one of them will receive "the first gift of Christmas" from Santa himself.

Released to theaters on November 10, 2004 by Warner Bros. and Castle Rock Entertainment, this was the first animated feature to be made entirely using Motion Capture technology. It was directed, co-produced and co-written by Robert Zemeckis, with Tom Hanks (who also served as an executive producer) doing much of the voice-acting work and performance capture. In addition, the studios worked in cooperation with The Steam Railroading Institute of Owosso, Michigan, whose primary steam locomotive, Pere Marquette 1225, served as the basis for the eponymous train's design and the majority of its sound effects, in addition to having inspired Allsburg to write the book the movie was based on. Along with Hanks, Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Jimmy Bennet, Eddie Deezen, Michael Jeter, and André Sogliuzzo voice the characters or provide motion capture performances.

On January 19, 2024, it was announced by producer Gary Goetzman that a sequel to the film is in the works.

The Film of the Book provides examples of:

  • Actionized Adaptation: The movie added action scenes of the protagonist skiing down the top of the train and working to get the train back on the rails before ice on a frozen lake broke beneath it.
  • Adaptation Expansion: A good deal, seeing as it is a 100-minute-long movie, based on a 32-page picture book that can be read in less than ten minutes.
  • All There in the Manual: Hero Boy and Hero Girl are unnamed in the film proper, however, the art book reveals their names to be Chris and Holly respectively.
  • Ambiguous Time Period: The exact time period in which the events of the plot take place is never specified, which contributes to the timeless, otherworldly quality of the story.
    • The eponymous train is modeled on a Berkshire 2-8-4, first built in 1925, but the clothing worn by the characters and the level of technology inside the train suggest anywhere from the early 1930s to the late '50s or early '60s. The only definitive piece of evidence we have as to the setting of the film is that it takes place after 1931, as the Know-it-All Boy mentions the train was built in that year. (He's wrong – the exact train the Polar Express was based on was built in 1941 – but at the very least the dialogue confirms that 1931 has already come and gone.) Meanwhile, the North Pole is depicted as a sophisticated Diesel Punk metropolis with an advanced level of technology bordering on Raygun Gothic. But, of course, it is a magic train which clearly doesn't follow the laws of time and space anyway.
    • For whatever it's worth, the original book was inspired by author Chris Van Allsburg's own childhood memories of Christmas. He was born in 1949, so if you assume that the movie takes place around the same time that he was the same age as Hero Boy, it could potentially indicate a setting in the late '50s or early '60s.
  • Angel Unaware: Strongly implied with the mysterious hobo, who always appears exactly when the Hero Boy needs him.
  • 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.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Recounting everything that's completely impossible that the titular train in terms of both physics and engineering would basically just be recapping the entire movie. For the sake of brevity, it would be easier to simply note that it's a magic train and it does whatever the plot needs it to do, so basically just roll with it.
  • Ascended Extra: The Scrooge puppet appears briefly in the film but is the main villain of the tie-in video game.
  • Award-Bait Song: "Believe" and perhaps "When Christmas Comes to Town".
  • Badass Driver: The train's engineer is able to skid steer a train, expertly Tokyo Drifting it around and keeping it headed straight with help from the conductor while on a frozen lake.
  • Belly-Scraping Flight: The airship-suspended bag of toys (and kids) knocks the giant star off the North Pole Christmas tree. Some bungee-jumping elves immediately retrieve it in mid-fall, suggesting this may be a staged example to show off their agility.
  • Bittersweet Ending: All of the kids return home – the better for the lessons they've learned on their adventure – and Hero Boy's belief in Santa is renewed. And though he initially loses the bell Santa gave him, Santa finds the bell in his sled and delivers it to him on Christmas morning, much to his delight. However, while Sarah is seen listening to the bell's ringing with him, Hero Boy's older self reveals that she and all his friends eventually lost the ability to hear it as they grew up and stopped believing in Santa Claus. Hero Boy, on the other hand, can still hear it after all these years.
  • Boring Return Journey: The trip back home from the North Pole is very quiet and melancholic; this is meant to reflect the Hero Boy's disheartenment after he accidentally loses the bell that Santa gave him. Plus all the kids must be probably tired after all that excitement, as quite a few are seen going to sleep.
  • Brick Joke:
    • When Hero Boy hears the ruckus outside near the beginning of the film, he rushes to grab his bathrobe and accidentally rips one of its pockets causing marbles to fall out. Near the end when Sarah wakes him up, the same thing occurs with the other pocket.
    • When Hero Boy is getting his ticket punched, some of the punched out remains end up in his lips, which he promptly spits out. Later on when the Conductor is punching the Hero Girl's ticket, said remains get caught in his mustache the same way, and he spits them out.
  • Broken Record: Quite literally, where the "ring-a-ling" part from "Silver Bells" repeats over and over during one scene.
  • But Now I Must Go: The Polar Express has to depart the North Pole just after Santa leaves for his Christmas Eve run.
  • By the Eyes of the Blind: The jingling and ringing of Santa's sleigh bells can only be heard by those who truly believe.
  • Canon Foreigner: The Hero Boy, the Conductor, Sarah, and Santa Claus are the only characters that appear in both the book and film. The rest of the cast (the Hero Girl, Billy, the Know-It-All Kid, the Hobo, and the engineers) were created specifically for the movie.
  • Character Narrator: The film begins and ends with narration from the adult Hero Boy.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The pocket that Hero Boy rips in his haste to check out the train outside his house; he unknowingly puts the bell in this pocket, which is how he loses it.
  • Clothes for Christmas Cringe: Lenny, the know-it-all kid, laments that all he finds for himself in Santa's sack is "a bunch of stupid underwear."
  • Cool Airship: The zeppelin/blimp* that carries Santa's bag of Christmas gifts to his sleigh. It looks like something out of dieselpunk media, with two envelopes, a massive lifting gantry, and several dozen skydiving elves who apparently serve as ballast. It even features a specialized bungee-jumping team meant to recover the massive star on top of the North Pole's tree should it become dislodged by the bag.
  • Cool Train: They were dead-on with the Berkshire, and it quickly reveals itself to be a magic train, upping the cool factor. And if that wasn't enough, it's a magical train taking kids to see Santa Claus himself, and it's able to drift across a frozen lake.
  • Cool, but Inefficient: Santa Claus's magical train suffers a throttle jam, and the headlight bulb gives out in the middle of the run.
  • Crazy-Prepared: The Fireman somehow keeps an emergency cotter pin under his hat, which is used to hold up a bun hairdo.
  • Creator Provincialism: Both Chris (Hero Boy) and Billy are from Grand Rapids, Michigan, just like Van Allsburg.
  • Cue O'Clock: The pocket watch of the conductor indicates whether the train is late.
  • Curse Cut Short: "I'll tell you what's grass; our—OW!"
  • Dead All Along: Played with. 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. A deleted scene on the DVD explains how the Hobo lost his life. Though considering how ditzy the engineers are, it's unknown if this is actually true or not.
  • Desperate Object Catch: The engineers nearly drop the replacement bulb for the locomotive's front light, but narrowly save it when the fat one dangles from the thin one's beard. Also done with the cotter pin (twice) and with Hero Girl's ticket.
  • Dreaming of a White Christmas: Considering that the story starts out in Grand Rapids (located in one of Michigan's infamous snowbelts) and leads to the North Pole, it makes sense that there would be plenty of snow on the ground.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Ebenezer Scrooge, who would star in another Robert Zemeckis-directed, motion capture-animated film five years later, appears here in puppet form.
  • Easily Forgiven: The Conductor sends off the Hero Boy with a warm and kind goodbye, despite the fact said boy caused a lot of problems during the journey.
  • Excuse Plot: Perhaps wisely, instead of trying to create a full cast of characters and a story out of a 32-page storybook, the personalities of the passengers and the narrative are deliberately streamlined as much as possible to focus on what the audience is really here for: the titular train doing cool magical stuff.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: The scene where the girl's ticket is first lost to where it is found again is one long scene.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Most of the film takes place in one night. Lampshaded by Know-It-All Boy, by the way.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Evidently, no one in the Grand Rapids, MI area noticed a steam locomotive and a small train of passenger cars full of children running through their city. Perhaps justified in the sense that the ride was for the children, and it is a magic train after all.
  • Fantasy Keepsake: The sleighbell.
  • The '50s: The film is set in the 1950s going by the train's model and clothing fashions.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • This verse in "When Christmas Comes to Town":
      Hero Girl: When Santa's sleigh bells ring
      Billy: I listen all around
      Hero Girl: The herald angels sing
      Billy: I never hear a sound
      Hero Girl: And all the dreams of children
      Billy: Once lost will now be found
    • "By the way... do you believe in ghosts?"
    • What the Conductor says after Know-It-All asks who will receive the first Christmas gift.
      Conductor: He will choose (looks at Hero Boy) One of you.
    • When Hero Boy is putting the bell in his pocket — the one with the hole in it — you can hear the bell fall out of the hole and hit the floor of the sleigh before the reindeer start to jump.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: In the final scene of the film as the camera zooms in on the bell, if you watch closely you can see Santa's face appear for a moment in the bell's reflection.
  • Given Name Reveal:
    • In-Universe, Hero Boy spots a present for someone named Billy. This prompts the Lonely Boy to reveal his name is Billy.
    • Outside of universe, Word of God is that the Hero Boy's name is Chris, the Hero Girl is named Holly, the Know-It-All is named Lenny, the engine crew are Smokey and Steamer, and the Conductor is James.
  • The Grinch: In the video game the Scrooge puppet tries to ruin Christmas for the kids because he thinks toys are what matters, not Santa.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: The titular Polar Express arrives at the North Pole at only the halfway point of the movie. Then the car the protagonists are in is detached from the rest of the train, and now they have to navigate Christmas Town to rejoin the other kids and see Santa.
  • Holiday Pardon: The two main unnamed protagonists are in Santa's sack with "that know-it-all kid" as the protagonist boy calls him. The elves say that the kids aren't meant to be there, but "since it's Christmas, we're gonna let you slide!"
  • In Medias Res: The video game starts with everyone already on the train.
  • Incoming Ham: The Conductor has several, especially his introduction. "ALLLLL ABOOOOAAAARRRRD!!!"
  • Ink-Suit Actor: Tom Hanks and Steven Tyler. Also Pere Marquette 1225 for a locomotive example.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: The Conductor, full stop.
    • The Hobo is also very rough around the edges; he uses a puppet of Ebenezer Scrooge to scare the Hero Boy at one point. 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, and is implied to have done the same for the Conductor in the past.
  • 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 as many as twenty cars. The inside scenes, however, 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. In addition to that, contrary to popular belief, you can't just jerk around a steam engine's controls like the engineer did in this scene to make the locomotive switch from forward to reverse and back again. The stresses of doing so is liable to make the running gear tear itself apart.
    • 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 (aside from the whistle) were taken from the real #1225 (the whistle came from legendary film locomotive Sierra Railroad #3, which was being restored at the time the film was made; #1225s own whistle was used in the scene when the Polar Express arrives).
    • The Know-It-All Kid gives a very accurate technical description of the locomotive's weight and pulling power...but loses most of his credibility when he gives the locomotive's class, build year, and manufacturer. He claims it is an S-3 Class Berkshire built by Baldwin in 1931, but Pere Marquette 1225 is actually an N-1 Class Berkshire built by Lima in 1941, a full ten years after his claim. He was right that Baldwin built the S-3 class, but they did so for the Pere Marquette's chief competitors, the Nickel Plate Road (1949) and Erie Railroad (1928). No Berkshires were built in 1931, there being a gap in Berkshire production between 1930 and 1934.
  • Large and in Charge: Judging by the height differential between him and the conductor and the kids, Santa is close to eight feet tall.
  • Large Ham: Both the Conductor and the Hobo really know how to ham it up whenever they're onscreen (since they're both played by Tom Hanks, this shouldn't be a surprise).
  • Leitmotif: The film's main theme, Josh Groban's "Believe", plays several times throughout the course of the story, specifically during the film's more triumphant moments. Billy the Lonely Boy is also accompanied by a soft rendition of "When Christmas Comes to Town", which he eventually sings with the Hero Girl.
  • Low Clearance: Flat-Top Tunnel, into which the train only just fits. When riding on the train roof, the hobo and the Hero Boy manage to get out of the way just in time. The tunnel mouth is shaped like the mouth of a monster.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Hero Boy's name is Chris, after the book's author. Oh, and he's the hero of a story that takes place at Christmas.
    • Hero Girl's name is Holly, a plant commonly associated with Christmas.
  • Mistaken for Santa: At the start of the movie, the Hero Boy hears jingling. He goes downstairs and sees a shadow of what appears to be Santa Claus, but then it's revealed to be his father and younger sister Sarah (the jingling is coming from the Santa hat that the dad is wearing), much to his disappointment.
  • Motion Capture: The first animated film to use this technique.
  • Motor Mouth: The Know-It-All.
  • Multi-Track Drifting: In one scene where the titular train got derailed and the train crew was forced to drift their way out of the crumbling ice sheet and back on track.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The scene where the conductor serves the kids hot chocolate is complete with the waiters giving them an epic floor show along with the refreshment.
  • Mythology Gag: The film ends with a shot of the bell Hero Boy received from Santa, just like the final illustration in the book.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
    • Holly (Hero Girl) left her ticket safely on her seat, which she was going to return to. Chris (Hero Boy) proceeds to take the ticket to give it to her for some reason and promptly loses it. The ticket does fly back to the train apparently by influence of the train's magic.
    • Steamer the Engineer gets annoyed when his throttle starts to stick and tries to rattle it loose. All he does is sheer off the pin holding it in place, causing the key component to break off, speed up the train as it approaches a dangerous downhill grade, and results in said pin breaking an entire frozen lake worth of ice as the train derails on it and is attempting to get back on the tracks right as the ice breaks off.
    • When boarding the observation car to speak to Billy, Hero Boy unknowingly steps on the lever that holds its coupling, releasing it and sending them downhill through the city out of control.
    • After receiving the bell from Santa, Hero Boy puts it in his right pocket, which is the one that has a hole in it resulting in him losing it.
  • No Antagonist: There is no villain in the story, as the film basically revolves around Hero Boy's wild journey to the North Pole and his Crisis of Faith in believing in Santa Claus. Averted with the tie-in video game, where the Scrooge puppet is the main villain.
  • 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" (named out of universe as Chris), "Hero Girl" (named out of universe as Holly), "Conductor", etc. The exceptions are Billy the Lonely Boy, the main character's sister Sarah, and of course Santa Claus and his reindeer.
    • According to several art books, the Hero Boy, Hero Girl, Know-It-All Kid, the Conductor, and the Engineer and Fireman do have real names. Respectively, they are Chris (named for the author of the book, Chris Van Allsburg), Holly, Lenny, James, and Smoky and Steamer.
    • The credits do list of the kids. The overweight boy who calls out "ELVES!" is named Gus the Toothless Boy.
    • One of the DVD bonus features reveals that the blonde girl is named Heather.
  • No OSHA Compliance: The track layout for the Polar Express is horrifically unsafe (rails just above water level where they can easily ice over, dangerously steep slopes), and the train is apparently not very well maintained before the big run of the yearnote . The train is also poorly secured once it reaches its destination, leading to the observation car sliding downhill and nearly going off the tracks.
  • Nostalgic Narrator: The Hero Boy as an adult, relating the events of one Christmas Eve "many years ago".
  • Object-Tracking Shot: A popular shot showing off the CGI.
  • Ode to Food: The waiters' song and dance routine about the hot chocolate.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Hero Boy when he sees Hero Girl's ticket left unpunched.
    • The Conductor when the train approaches Glacier Gulch.
    • Both Hero Boy and Hero Girl when they see the ice cracking and when the train starts to sink.
  • The Oner:
    • Hero Girl's ticket flying through different scenery.
    • The Polar Express arriving at the north pole and the Conductor explaining the first gift of Christmas.
  • 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.
    • Later, Billy asks, "Is it really possible this could all be just a dream?" and the Hero Boy replies quite fervently, "No."
  • Overcrank: During the last verse of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" as the bell slowly falls off...
  • Overly Long Gag:
    • When on the ice lake: "Right! Left! Right! Left! Right! Hang a Louie! Toss a Richie! Port astern! To the starboard!"
    • From Steven: "I didn't do it! I didn't do it! I didn't do it! I didn't do it! I didn't do it!"
    • From a literal Broken Record in the scene before: "Ringaling...ringaling...ringaling...ringaling...ringaling...ringaling...ringaling...ringaling..."
  • Pink Girl, Blue Boy: Hero Girl wears a pinkish nightgown while Hero Boy wears a blue robe.
  • P.O.V. Cam: Used a few times, but mostly with Hero Boy. The most epic one is off one of the sleigh bells flying off a rein through the air and landing on the ground before him in slow motion.
  • Power Glows: Subtly used on Santa; it earned him the distinction of appearing "radioactive" to some viewers.
  • Present Peeking: The Know-It-All sneaks away from the others to look through the presents, but "All I got was a lot of stupid underwear."
  • Pun: When Hero Boy is trying to find the brake on the runaway observation car:
    Hobo: Take a brake, kid! How 'bout a nice, good, hot cup o' joe?!
  • The Quiet One: Billy remains silent for the first half of the movie, likely being shy and nervous. The first time we hear his voice is during the "When Christmas Comes To Town" number after the wild ride.
  • 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 keeps him on a check-twice list for next year.
    • The conductor. He chews out Hero Boy when he pulls the emergency brake, but upon learning he did it so Billy could get on, he lets it go. Later, when Hero Boy stops the train at the caribou crossing, he starts up again, but immediately turns his anger to the caribou upon being pointed to them.
  • 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 cup of hot chocolate and puts it under her seat to take to another child. There is no "chocolate-cooling" rule breaking involved, though.
  • Runaway Train: After Caribou Crossing, the throttle breaks and the train runs out of control going through glacier gulch at dangerous speeds before ending up on the ice lake. Then once the train reaches the North Pole, Hero Boy accidentally steps on the observation car's coupling rod when climbing aboard to get the Lonely Boy, causing it to detach from the coaches and flee downhill through the Pole.
  • Rule of Three: The train is stopped once to let Billy on, and again when coming upon the caribou crossing; both times, the Conductor isn't real happy about it. The third time though, the train starts going too fast and urges Hero Girl to tell the engineer to slow the train down, but the throttle suddenly self-destructs when the cotter pin comes loose.
  • Run or Die: When the frozen lake that the train is stopped on starts cracking.
  • Santa Claus: Obviously. The entire point of riding the Polar Express is to travel the North Pole to meet the big guy.
  • Santa Clausmas: In the tie-in video game, Scrooge's main goal is to prevent children from believing in Santa Claus because he thinks toys are what matters, not Santa Claus.
  • Scenery Porn: All over the place. Especially during the scenes at the North Pole. The fact that many of the scenery shots are accompanied by a gorgeous orchestral rendition of "Believe" makes it all the better.
    • The entire scene of Hero Girl's ticket getting blown out the window seems to exist for only this purpose.
  • 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:
    • Hero Boy blows the train whistle while saying "I've wanted to do that my whole life!" So did Doc Brown. In a further 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. Santa's sleigh also leaves behind a trail after it disappears. In addition, 1225's whistle is replaced with that of Sierra Railway #3, the same engine that starred in Part III with Zemeckis directing.
    • The Hobo makes a reference to Charles Dickens' novel A Christmas Carol by playing with a toy puppet of Ebenezer Scrooge. He uses the puppet to scare the protagonist, and calls the kid a Scrooge, a doubter, and an unbeliever.
      • Fittingly enough, the homeless man himself is a ghost.
    • At one point the Hobo declares himself "the King of the North Pole".
    • That troublesome ticket flaps around in the breeze like the feather from Forrest Gump, which also starred Tom Hanks.
  • Shown Their Work: Despite most of the movie being Just Train Wrong, there are a few things they got right.
    • The scene where the protagonists have to choose which lever operates the brake: A big red lever sticking out of the floor, or a smaller yellow lever on the side of the cab. The Hero Boy chooses the small yellow lever, which turns out to be correct, and the train stops, relatively safely. The Truth in Television comes in due to the fact that the other lever did not operate the break, but the Johnson bar, essentially the "gearshift" of the locomotive, and the lever he selected controlled the train's air brakes. Had he pulled the Johnson bar, the force of "switching gears" at that speed would likely have torn the wheels right off.
    • The Hobo's dialogue is peppered with correct slang terms used by actual rail-riding hobos of the 1920's and 30's, such as "rattler" (an express train), and "hog" (locomotive).
    • 1225's design in the movie, aside from the smokebox, the pilot, the position (and sound) of her whistle, and a few missing modern appliances, is a spot-on recreation of the real thing.
    • The train having mechanical problems en route is also this, because steam engines require constant maintenance and are prone to breakdowns at the worst possible times—the real 1225 was in need of a major overhaul on both her boiler and drivers during the film's production, and wouldn't get either till 2010 and 2022 respectively!
  • Silent Whisper: When the main character tells Santa what he wants for Christmas.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: At the very end of the idealism side. In spite of Chris's doubts towards Santa's existence, most everyone keeps an upbeat and peppy attitude, which helps turn him around by the time he meets the big guy.
  • Snowy Sleigh Bells: Hero Boy can't hear the bells on Santa's sleigh until he chooses to believe.
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: "I'll tell you what's grass! Our— ow!!!!"
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • A steam engine randomly appearing in the middle of a street where no tracks ever existed before is enough to confuse anyone, but one that claims it's going to the North Pole? It's no wonder the Hero Boy initially refuses to get on.
    • Living life on the rails is dangerous enough, but for hobos, the danger is even greater if they're unfamiliar with the route. This is apparently what got the Hobo killed, according to a deleted scene, as he chose to ride the Polar Express for what became his first and, in the land of the living, only ride. Once they approached Flat Top Tunnel that night, his failure to notice it until it was too late ended him right there and then.
    • As much of a Cool Train as the Polar Express is, as noted under Cool, but Inefficient, steam locomotives are by no means immune to the occasional breakdown. In this case, the pin holding the throttle in place eventually wears out and needs replacement. Unfortunately, such wearing happens just before the train approaches the steep downhill grades of Glacier Gulch, when it sticks and causes the throttle to jam.
      • This point also ends up playing out two other key instances of this trope. First, the throttle getting stuck causes an annoyed Smokey to try and ram it loose. Doing so only shreds the pin out of place and into the heating grate leading inside the firebox, causing the engine to pick up speed rapidly as they approach the dangerous drop. It was a miracle they didn't derail from that excessive speed (well, before they hit the frozen lake anyway). Then, when they do get the pin out (courtesy of their run throwing the cab into zero gravity), Steamer swallows it and Smokey has to ram him with a shovel to get him to cough it out. It might not have been an issue, but they were running out of control on the ice, and when a sharp object hits a fragile patch of ice, it makes for a deadly combination.
    • Trains may need to keep on schedule, but there's making up time and going dangerously fast. The Conductor, who spent the film worrying about arriving on time, becomes greatly concerned when the train picks up speed, as he knows all too well that there's a particularly dangerous drop up ahead. With passengers aboard (and children passengers no less), he promptly instructs the Hero Girl to tell Steamer to slow down. Unfortunately, he's too distracted by a jammed throttle to notice.
    • Once the two get the throttle back on (with a pin from Smokey's hair) and manage to stop the train, the sharp application of the brakes, combined with the high speed from which they started off at and the slipperiness of the ice, nearly tips 1225 on her side before the kids and the conductor are able to balance her out just enough to keep her upright.
    • Icy-cold weather and metal do not mix well, as it leaves such surfaces slippery. When the Conductor is taking the kids back to the passenger cars, the Hero Boy nearly slips and falls off the tender. Fortunately, the Conductor (who happens to be telling a story about such familiar experiences) manages to catch him.
    • When the Hero Boy and Hero Girl go back into the observation car to try and convince Billy to come with them to see Santa, the former slips on the steps and accidentally triggers the coupling mechanism, causing the car to become uncoupled from the rest of the train. One slight jostle later (presumably from the engine), and the loose car rolls downhill.
    • Trying to sneak a peak at one's Christmas presents before the day comes is a good way to get yourself into trouble. All the Know-It-All Kid finds marked for him when he sneaks into Santa's bag is nothing but socks and underwear. Evidently, the elves must have known he'd pull a stunt like this, as they mentioned they knew the children were inside the bag the whole time when they found them.
    • When the elves deliver Santa's massive bag of presents, they let the air out of the Zeppelin delivering the bag too early, causing them to tip the star on top of the tree over. Even the Conductor, who knows nothing about aircraft, is quick to recognize they need more altitude, so the elves lighten their load by parachuting off their craft, since refueling in the air is impossible.
  • Tempting Fate:
    Hero Boy: We're gonna be okay... [The observation car gets diverted downhill] Maybe NOOOOOOOOOOOOT!!!!!!
  • This Is Gonna Suck:
    The Conductor: Well, considering the fact that we have lost communication with the engineer, we are standing totally exposed on the front of the locomotive, the train seems to be accelerating, uncontrollably, and we are rapidly approaching to Glacier Gulch, which just happens to be the steepest downhill grade in the world, I suggest we all hold on... TIGHTLY!
  • Those Two Guys: Smokey and Steamer, the Fireman and engineer.
  • 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.
  • Vehicle Title: The titular train is what conveys the children to the North Pole, and is the setting for the first 2/3 of the film.
  • Walk Into Camera Obstruction: When Hero Boy uses the train's emergency break, the train's front end almost hits the screen as it comes to a halt.
  • Wham Shot: The shot of Hero Girl’s unpunched ticket left on her passenger seat. To a bigger degree, Hero Boy receiving the sleigh bell as a gift from Santa after he found it in his sleigh.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After the scene with the frozen lake, we never see the two guys from the engine ever again.
  • Wintry Auroral Sky: The Aurora Borealis appears as the titular train crosses the Arctic Circle.
  • "You!" Exclamation
    • First after Hero Boy uses the emergency break to let Billy board the train:
      Know-It-All: [points to Hero Boy] He did!
      Conductor: You!
    • Again when Hero Boy sees Hero Girl in the engine:
      Hero Boy: You?! I thought you got thrown off're driving the train?!
      Hero Girl: They put me in charge.
    • And one final time when the boy has to stop the train for a herd of caribou:
  • "You!" Squared: The Hero Boy and the Know-It-All Boy, when they find each other in Santa's sack of presents.

"At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell. But as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found, one Christmas, that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I have grown old, the bell still rings for me. As it does for all who truly believe."


Video Example(s):


A Cup of Joe

When Hero Boy tastes the Hobo's coffee, he is late to realize he uses HIS SOCKS as the filler.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (8 votes)

Example of:

Main / IAteWhat

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