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 to the North Pole and Santa's workshop. There, one of the passengers will receive "the first gift of Christmas".
Released in 2004, the film was the very first animated feature to be made entirely with Motion Capture technology. It was directed by Robert Zemeckis, with Tom Hanks (who also served as an executive producer) doing much of the voice work and performance capture.
The Film of the Book provides examples of:
- Actionized Adaptation: The movie added action scenes of the protagonist sledding 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 book that can be read in less than 10 minutes.
- Adorkable: Hero Boy, especially when he tries the whistle:Hero Boy: I wanted to do that my whole life!
- 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.
- 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".
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Cool Train: They were dead-on with the Berkshire, and it quickly reveals itself to be a magic train, upping the cool factor.
- Curse Cut Short: "I'll tell you what's grass; our—OW!"
- 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: Ebenezer Scrooge, who would star in another Robert Zemeckis-directed, motion capture-animated film five years later, appears here in puppet form.
- 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.
- Fantasy Keepsake: The sleighbell.
Hero Girl: When Santa's sleigh bells ring
- This verse in "When Christmas Comes to Town":
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?"
- 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.
- The Grinch: In the video game the Scrooge puppet tries to ruin Christmas for the kids.
- In Medias Res: The video game starts with everyone already on the train.
- Incoming Ham: The Conductor has several, especially his introduction. “ALLLLL ABOOOOAAAARRRRD!!!”
- Incredibly Lame 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?!
- Ink-Suit Actor: Tom Hanks and Steven Tyler.
- 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.
- 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. 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 Know-It-All Kid gives a very accurate technical description...but loses some of his credibility when he refers to the locomotive as an S-3 Class Berkshire, a class never used by the Pere Marquette (but was used by two of its rivals, the Nickel Plate Road and the Erie Railroad). #1225 is an N-1 Class Berkshire.
- 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.
- Magic Hair: When the train is moving at a really fast speed, especially in Glacier Gulch and when the observation car comes loose, Hero Girl's braided hair doesn't blow backwards at all.
- 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."
- Motion Capture: The first 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.
- 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.
- When boarding the observation car to speak to the Lonely Boy, 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. 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", "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.
- 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.
- 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...
- 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.
- The Quiet One: The Lonely Boy 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 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 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.
- Rule of Three: The train is stopped once to let the Lonely Boy 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 engineer couldn't hear.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: "I'll tell you what's grass! Our— ow!!!!"
- 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 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.
- Vehicle Title
- 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.
- "You!" Exclamation
Conductor: WHO IN THE BLAZES APPLIED THAT EMERGENCY BRAKE?!!Know-It-All: [points to Hero Boy] He did!Conductor: You!
- First after Hero Boy uses the emergency break to let the Lonely Boy board the train:
Hero Boy: You?! I thought you got thrown off and...you're driving the train?!Hero Girl: They put me in charge!
- Again when Hero Boy sees Hero Girl in the engine:
- "You!" Squared: The Hero Boy and the Know-It-All Boy, when they find each other in Santa's sack of presents.