The Polar Express
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Zemeckis
Screenplay by
Based onThe Polar Express
by Chris Van Allsburg
Produced by
Starring
Cinematography
Edited by
  • Jeremiah O'Driscoll
  • R. Orlando Duenas
Music byAlan Silvestri
Production
companies
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures[1]
Release dates
Running time
100 minutes[3]
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$165–170 million[4][5]
Box office$318.2 million[6]

The Polar Express is a 2004 American animated adventure film[1][2] directed by Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote the screenplay with William Broyles Jr., based on the 1985 children's book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. It stars Tom Hanks (in multiple roles), Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Jimmy Bennett, and Eddie Deezen. The film depicts human characters using live action and motion capture computer animation, with production sequences for the latter taking place from June 2003 to May 2004. Set on Christmas Eve, it tells the story of a young boy who sees a mysterious train bound for the North Pole stop outside his window and is invited aboard by its conductor. He joins other children as they embark on a journey to visit Santa Claus, who is preparing for Christmas.

The Polar Express premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival on October 13, 2004, and was theatrically released by Warner Bros. Pictures in the United States on November 10. The film received mixed reviews from critics and initially grossed $286 million against a record-breaking $165–170 million budget, which was the biggest sum for an animated feature at the time.[7] Later re-releases helped propel the film's gross to $318.2 million worldwide, and it was later listed in the 2006 Guinness World Records as the first all-digital capture film. The Polar Express was also the last film appearance for Michael Jeter before his death in 2003 and is dedicated to his memory.[8]

Plot

In the late 1940s, in Grand Rapids, Michigan on the night of Christmas Eve, a passenger train known as the Polar Express stops on the street outside a boy's house. The boy has been growing skeptical about Santa Claus's existence. The conductor says the train is traveling to the North Pole. The boy, although reluctant at first, climbs aboard and meets a spirited girl and a know-it-all boy. The train then stops to pick up a boy named Billy, who also initially refuses to board, but changes his mind as the train moves away. Much to the conductor's annoyance, the boy applies the emergency brake, and Billy is allowed on board, but he decides to sit alone in the observation car. A platoon of dancing waiters serve the children hot chocolate with the girl saving a cup for Billy.

When the conductor and the girl go to give Billy his cup, the boy notices that the girl's ticket has not yet been validated and tries to return it to her. In doing so, the wind blows away the ticket out into the wilderness, but it soon makes its way back to the train. After the girl discovers that her ticket is missing, the conductor leaves with her. Assuming that she will be thrown off the train, the boy finds the ticket and traverses the rooftops to find the girl. He encounters a mysterious ghostly hobo that helps him reach the engine. The boy discovers the girl has been put in charge of the train while the engineer and fireman are replacing the engine's headlight. The boy applies the train brakes before a herd of caribou blocks the tracks. As the train continues its journey with the conductor, boy, and girl exposed to the elements standing on the front of the train, it travels at an extremely fast speed because the throttle handle's cotter pin came loose and fell off. Once they reach a frozen lake, the cotter pin is replaced and the train engineer narrowly gets the train back onto the tracks just before the ice breaks.

The conductor takes the boy and girl back to their seats and they join Billy in the observation car. The train finally arrives at the North Pole, where the conductor announces that one of the children will be chosen to receive the first gift of Christmas from Santa himself. While the girl and boy attempt to convince Billy to join them, the boy accidentally uncouples the car, causing it to roll away and speed downhill along a track into a tunnel towards a railway turntable inside Santa's workshop. The children make their way through an elf command center and a gift-sorting office facility, where Billy finds a present in his name. They are dumped into a giant sack of presents, where they also find the know-it-all. After the sack is loaded onto Santa's sleigh, the elves escort them out before Santa and his reindeer arrive.

A bell flies loose from the galloping reindeer's reins; the boy initially cannot hear it ring, until he finds it within himself to believe. He returns the bell to Santa, who selects him to receive the first gift of Christmas. Santa agrees to let him keep the bell. As the children board the train to go back home, the boy discovers that he lost the bell through a hole in his pocket. The boy arrives home and the conductor wishes him a Merry Christmas.

He wakes up on Christmas morning to find a present containing his lost bell with a note from Santa. He and his younger sister Sarah joyfully ring the bell, but their parents do not hear it because they do not believe in Santa. The boy reflects on his friends and sister eventually growing deaf to the bell over the years as their belief faded. However, despite the fact he is now an adult, the bell still rings for him, as it does "for all who truly believe".

Voice cast

The film marks the last performance of Michael Jeter, who died the year before the film's release, and it is dedicated to his memory.

Production

Development and visual effects

Hanks optioned the book in 1999 after reading the book to his children with the hopes of playing the conductor and Santa Claus.[10] The book's original author Chris Van Allsburg had been unwilling to sell the rights to the book for a film adaptation but changed his mind after learning of Hanks' involvement. Castle Rock Entertainment subsequently made a "seven-figure commitment" to co-produce the film with Hanks's company Playtone, Van Allsburg, and William Teitler in March 2000. One of the conditions of the sale was that the resulting film not be animated, as Van Allsburg feared this would not accurately represent his characters.[11] Rob Reiner was originally hired as director, and the film was originally scheduled to be released in December 2001.[1]

After the film was repeatedly postponed, Zemeckis was hired as to replace Reiner as director and co-producer in February 2002. Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. subsequently rewrote the film. Zemeckis and Broyles' new draft expanded the roles of minor characters such as Hero Girl, Know-it-all, and Lonely Boy. It also added the new character of Hobo. The idea of a Scrooge puppet was conceived when Zemeckis looked at his childhood toys, one of which was a puppet. After Zemeckis's company ImageMovers's contract with DreamWorks Pictures expired, he made a new deal with Warner Bros. Pictures to fund, distribute, and provide studio space for the film.[1]

Despite Van Allsburg's original terms with Hanks, Zemeckis felt that a live-action version was unfeasible, claiming that it "would look awful, and it would be impossible – it would cost $1 billion instead of $160 million".[11] Zemeckis felt that such a version would rob the audience of the art style of the book which he felt was "so much a part of the emotion of the story".[10] However, Zemeckis also agreed that a conventional animated version would suit the film poorly. In order to keep his vision a new process was created by which actors would be filmed with motion capture equipment in a black box stage which would then be animated to make the resulting film.[10] Hanks stated that this method of working was "actually a return to a type of acting that acting in films does not allow you to do", comparing the process to performing a play in the round.[12] The decision to film in motion capture necessitated another studio to co-produce, as the process was expensive and cost $1 million per minute of footage. After Universal Studios turned down the opportunity, investor Steve Bing agreed to finance half of the film's budget through his company Shangri-La Entertainment, which had only produced one other film.[1]

Hanks plays five roles in the film including that of a small child (whose voice would later be dubbed in by Daryl Sabara).[13] Initially Zemeckis considered having him play every role, but after trying this, Hanks grew exhausted, and they whittled down the number.[12] Principal photography of the motion-capture sequences began in June 2003 at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, and wrapped in May 2004.[14]

The only two characters in the film to not be animated through motion capture were Smokey and Steamer, mainly because of the huge size discrepancy and their more caricature nature compared to the rest of the cast. Ultimately, the characters were animated traditionally with skeletal animation rigs.[9] A deleted scene on the home media release has Smokey and Steamer explain through a shadow puppet show that the Hobo is in fact the ghost of a homeless person who was killed while riding on the top of the train.[15]

The film was Michael Jeter's last film performance, as he died on March 30, 2003, before he could complete his voice-over work as Smokey and Steamer. To save the film, André Sogliuzzo was brought in to record the remaining dialogue, as well as re-dub most of Jeter's already recorded dialogue (except for Steamer during the caribou scene).[9]

Soundtrack

Main article: The Polar Express (soundtrack)

The soundtrack of the film, titled The Polar Express: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, was released on November 2, 2004, by Reprise Records, Warner Music Group and Warner Sunset Records.[16] The song, "Believe" was written by Alan Silvestri (music) and Glen Ballard (lyrics), and was nominated for Best Original Song at the 77th Academy Awards. It was sung at the 77th Academy Awards show by original performer Josh Groban with Beyoncé and won a Grammy Award in 2006.

The album was certified Gold by the RIAA in November 2007. Having sold 724,000 copies in the United States, it is the best-selling film soundtrack/holiday album hybrid since Nielsen SoundScan started tracking music sales in 1991.

Most of the original orchestral score featured in the film was not released on the soundtrack and has never been released. The soundtrack mostly comprises only songs featured in the film. A limited number of promotional "For Your Consideration" CDs, intended to showcase the film's score to reviewers of the film, were released in 2005. This CD contained nearly the complete score, but none of the film's songs. Various bootleg versions of the soundtrack, combining both the official soundtrack album and the orchestral-only CD, have since surfaced.[17]

Architecture

Administration building of the Pullman Palace Car Company

The buildings at the North Pole in the film represent an earlier era in American railroading. Building design drew inspiration from the Pullman neighborhood in Chicago, home of a railroad car manufacturer, the Pullman Company.[18]

The Polar Express Locomotive

Pere Marquette locomotive 1225, the basis for the Polar Express

The locomotive featured in the film is an American 2-8-4 Berkshire type steam locomotive modeled after the Pere Marquette 1225, which had spent many years on static display near Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan, on the campus of Michigan State University, where Chris Van Allsburg recalled playing on the engine when attending football games as a child. The engine in the movie, however, has noticeable differences from the real Pere Marquette 1225, and looks somewhat like an S-1 from the Erie Railroad. These include the headlight being mounted inside the smokebox, like many Delaware & Hudson steam locomotives, instead of being on a platform or pilot. The whistle is mounted on the upper right hand side of the boiler positioned upright, instead of on top of the boiler, positioned horizontally. It also lacks the feedwater heater, marker lights, number boards, and builders plates the real Pere Marquette 1225 has. The cow catcher is also bigger than it is in real life, with slats extending to the pilot beam, and it also lacks a front coupler.[19]

In July 2002, Warner Bros. approached the locomotive's owner, the Steam Railroading Institute, to study the engine.[20] The engine in the film is modeled from the PM No. 1225's drawings and the sounds from recordings made of the 1225 operating under steam.[21]

Marketing

Video game

Main article: The Polar Express (video game)

A video game based on the film was released on November 2, 2004, for GameCube, Game Boy Advance, PlayStation 2 and Windows, developed by Blue Tongue Entertainment and published by THQ.[22][23] The plot of the game is somewhat different than the film version. Within the game, the Ebenezer Scrooge puppet—who is set as the main antagonist of the game—attempts to prevent the children from believing in Santa Claus by stealing their tickets and trying to prevent the children from making it to the North Pole.[24][25]

Merchandise

Model railroad manufacturer Lionel produces a variety of Polar Express train sets and equipment, including locomotives, train cars, and trackside buildings.[26] Most of these are in O scale, running on Lionel's 3-rail track, but they also produce an HO scale version, an S scale American Flyer version, and a simplified plastic toy version that runs on G scale (or #1 gauge) track. In all of these sets, the locomotive model is based on the film rather than the real Pere Marquette 1225, and thus incorporates of the cosmetic changes made for the film (such as the longer cowcatcher and recessed headlight housing).

Before the film was released, Bachmann, another major model train manufacturer, also sold a G scale Polar Express train set based on the book. Apart from the paint scheme, this set made no effort to resemble the book illustrations, and used the same 4-6-0 locomotive and open-platform passenger cars as most of Bachmann's other G scale train sets. Bachmann's G scale 4-6-0 is based on ET&WNC "Tweetsie" #12, a narrow-gauge locomotive that looks very different from Pere Marquette 1225.[27] This set was discontinued before the release of the film.

Various manufacturers have produced look-alike train sets based on the Polar Express, but as these are not officially licensed, they cannot use the name. A typical example is Bachmann's more recent HO scale "North Pole Express", which includes a 2-6-2 locomotive (their existing USRA 0-6-0 model with pilot and trailing trucks added) and two passenger cars in a Polar Express-inspired paint scheme.[28] Bachmann also produces an HO scale model of Pere Marquette 1225, but it is not available in Polar Express livery.[29]

Brio has produced several wooden Polar Express train sets for small children – some unpowered, others with a battery-operated locomotive.[30] Although both locomotives were based on existing Brio products, the Polar Express versions were given center-mounted headlights to loosely suggest the appearance of Pere Marquette 1225. Instead of black, they were painted dark blue to resemble the color palette of the film. Both sets have since been discontinued.

Train trips

A Grand Canyon Railway passenger car with an almost perfectly accurate Polar Express livery
Polar Express train on the Mid-Norfolk Railway, UK, in 2019

The film has also spawned multiple real-world holiday train-travel experiences based loosely on the film's train journey all over the United States, as well as Canada, and even the United Kingdom under license from Rail Events Inc.[31] These include the Polar Express train rides held at the Grand Canyon Railway,[32][33] Great Smoky Mountains Railroad,[34] Texas State Railroad,[35] Whippany Railway Museum, and the Aspen Crossing,[36] among others. The Pere Marquette 1225 itself pulls a similarly themed Christmas train, albeit under the name of the North Pole Express.[37]

The UK's first Polar Express train rides were hosted on the Dartmoor Railway and the Weardale Railway, which were both owned by the company British American Railway Services. These services were all diesel hauled, however in 2016, Telford Steam Railway became the first UK line to run the Polar Express with steam,[38][39] powered by one of two American-built S160 2-8-0 locomotive's No's. 5197 & 6046 courtesy of Churnet Valley Railway in Staffordshire.[40][41] PNP Events Ltd operates The Polar Express Train Rides in Oxfordshire (Cholsey and Wallingford Railway), the Yorkshire Dales (Wensleydale Railway),[42] South Devon (South Devon Railway), Royal Tunbridge Wells (Spa Valley Railway) and new for 2023, Edinburgh Waverley on the UK Mainline Network.

The Polar Express Train Ride also operates on the Mid-Norfolk Railway,[43] and the Seaton Tramway operate the "Polar Express Tram Ride".[44]

Alongside the steam operated Polar Express trains run at numerous Heritage Railway's over the UK, Vintage Trains run their trains on the UK Mainline Network. Their trains have been operated with a selection of steam locomotives which has included Great Western 4-6-0 Hall class No. 4965 Rood Ashton Hall for the ride, albeit being renamed Polar Star (this name was originally worn by 4005 "Polar Star" & later 70026 "Polar Star"), as of 2023 these trains still run with their latest programme of trains being hauled by Great Western 4-6-0 Castle Class's No. 5043 Earl of Mount Edgcumbe and No. 7029 Clun Castle. These trains run between Birmingham Moor Street and Dorridge.

Concert presentations

In 2021, CineConcerts in partnership with Warner Bros. Consumer Products presented The Polar Express in Concert, being symphony hall showings of the movie backed by a live symphony orchestra and choir.[45]

The Polar Express Experience

In November 2007, SeaWorld Orlando debuted the Polar Express Experience, a motion simulator ride based on the film. The attraction was a temporary replacement for the Wild Arctic attraction. The building housing the attraction was also temporarily re-themed to a railroad station and ride vehicles painted to resemble Polar Express passenger cars. The plot for the ride revolves around a trip to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Guests feel the motion of the locomotive as well as the swinging of the train on ice and feeling of ice crumbling beneath them. The attraction was available until January 1, 2008,[46] and was open annually during the Christmas season. 2015 was the final year of operation for the Polar Express Experience and Wild Arctic was operated on a year-round schedule until 2021.[47]

The 4D film, distributed by SimEx-Iwerks, has been shown at other amusement parks around the world including Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Stone Mountain, Dollywood (during the annual Smoky Mountain Christmas event), Vancouver Aquarium (2009—2010).[48]

Release

A bus advertising the film in England

Theatrical

The Polar Express premiered at the 40th Chicago International Film Festival on October 21, 2004.[49][50] It opened on November 7 and went into wide distribution on November 10.[1] In addition to standard theatrical 35mm format, a 3-D version for IMAX was also released, generated from the same CGI digital models used for the 2-D version.[51]

Home media

One year after theatrical release, the film was released on DVD in widescreen and full-screen versions as single and two-disc special editions (with bonus features), as well as on VHS, on November 22, 2005.[52][53] It was released on HD-DVD with bonus features in 2006 and on Blu-ray with bonus features on October 30, 2007, both presented in the original widescreen aspect ratio. It was also released in Anaglyph 3D Blu-ray and DVD on October 28, 2008, labeled as "The Polar Express: Presented in 3-D". This version includes an Anaglyph Version of the Film and the Original Theatrical Presentation. The film was later released to Blu-ray 3D on November 16, 2010, and to Ultra HD Blu-ray on November 1, 2022.

Reception

Box office

The film opened in second place behind The Incredibles, earning $23.3 million from approximately 7,000 screens at 3,650 theaters, for a per-theater average of $6,390 and a per-screen average of $3,332 in its opening weekend. It also brought in a total of $30.6 million since its Wednesday launch. The weekend total also included $2.1 million from 59 IMAX theaters, for an IMAX theater average of $35,593, and had a $3,000,000 take since Wednesday.[54] According to president Dan Fellman, Titanic had put a different spin on the numbers for The Polar Express. Among holiday movies, The Santa Clause 2 opened in 2002 to $29 million and grossed $140 million, while Elf debuted the next year at $31 million on its way to a $175-million take. The studio had high hopes for the movie, particularly since Zemeckis and Hanks had a history of success with Forrest Gump and Cast Away.[55] By comparison from the weekend the previous year, the top 12 movies had taken in $136.1 million down to 5% following the debuts of The Matrix Revolutions, Brother Bear and Elf.[56]

Since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was released in 2001, Warner Bros. had released 10 major films and all of them had dropped off at least 36% in their second weekend, but only seven dropped off at least 49%. Not one of them had a lower three-day opening weekend total gross as The Polar Express itself. The overseas prospects for the film were not especially encouraging, even though The Last Samurai went on to make a considerable sum of money across the globe and was prematurely labeled a flop by the media.[57] In its second weekend, The Polar Express dropped to 33%, and grossing $15.7 million, averaging $4,293 from 3,650 venues and boosting the 12-day cumulative gross to $51.5 million. In its third weekend, which was Thanksgiving weekend, the film increased by 24%, earning $19.4 million, averaging $5,312 from 3,650 venues and raising the 19-day cumulative gross to $81.5 million.[58][59] With a total gross of $71 million, The Polar Express would hold the record for having the highest IMAX gross of any film until it was taken by Avatar five years later in 2009.[60] The film has made $189,528,738 in North America, and $128,697,779 overseas for a total worldwide gross of $318,226,517 (including all re-releases).[6]

Critical response

The Polar Express received divisive reviews from critics upon release,[61][62] with some calling it an "instant Christmas classic" and others criticizing the characters as "lifeless zombies".[63][64] On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 56% of 208 critics' reviews are positive, with an average rating of 6.40/10. The website's consensus reads: "Though the movie is visually stunning overall, the animation for the human characters isn't lifelike enough, and the story is padded."[65] Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned the film a score of 61 out of 100, based on 36 critics, indicating "generally favorable" reviews.[66] The Independent reported in 2011 that the film "is now seen by many as a classic".[67] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film a rare average grade of "A+" on an A+ to F scale.[68]

Roger Ebert gave the film his highest rating of four stars, saying, "There's a deeper, shivery tone, instead of the mindless jolliness of the usual Christmas movie", and "it has a haunting, magical quality". Acknowledging comments by other reviewers, Ebert said, "It's a little creepy. Not creepy in an unpleasant way, but in that sneaky, teasing way that lets you know eerie things could happen."[69] Richard Roeper and Mick LaSalle also gave highly positive reviews to the film, with the former saying that it "remains true to the book, right down to the bittersweet final image"[citation needed] and the latter giving it his highest rating of five stars, calling it, "an enchanting, beautiful and brilliantly imagined film that constitutes a technological breakthrough".[70] James Berardinelli gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, stating that it is "a delightful tale guaranteed to enthrall viewers of all ages", and ranked it as the 10th best film of 2004, tying with The Incredibles.[71] Ian Nathan of Empire gave the film three out of five stars, and said, "For all the fairy-lit wonder, some will rail at the idea of Back to the Future's director dabbling with such a schmaltzy tale. Cynics will sneeze in shock; children will cuddle up and dream along."[72] Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian also gave the film three out of five stars, saying, "After a promising and distinctive start, a railway adventure to meet Santa runs off the rails."[73]

The film's character animation was criticized by some critics for dipping into the uncanny valley,[74][75] as it was thought to falter in mimicking realistic facial expressions and emotions.[76] Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film 1 star out of 4, and called it "a failed and lifeless experiment in which everything goes wrong".[77] Stephanie Zacharek of Salon gave the film 1.5 stars out of 5 and said, "I could probably have tolerated the incessant jitteriness of The Polar Express if the look of it didn't give me the creeps."[78] Geoff Pevere of the Toronto Star stated, "If I were a child, I'd have nightmares. Come to think of it, I did anyway."[79] Paul Clinton from CNN called it "at best disconcerting, and at worst, a wee bit horrifying".[80] Manohla Dargis of The New York Times gave the film 1.5 stars out of 5 and wrote, "There's no way of knowing whether they drank the company Kool-Aid. Still, from the looks of The Polar Express it's clear that, together with Mr. Zemeckis, this talented gang has on some fundamental level lost touch with the human aspect of film."[81]

Accolades

In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated The Polar Express for its Top 10 Animated Films list.[82]

This list is incomplete; you can help by adding missing items. (December 2023)
Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards February 27, 2005 Best Sound Editing Randy Thom and Dennis Leonard Nominated [83]
Best Sound Mixing Randy Thom, Tom Johnson, Dennis S. Sands and William B. Kaplan Nominated
Best Original Song Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri for "Believe" by Josh Groban Nominated
Golden Globe Awards January 16, 2005 Best Original Song Nominated
Grammy Awards February 8, 2006 Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media Won
Visual Effects Society February 16, 2005 Outstanding Performance by an Animated Character in an Animated Motion Picture Michael Jeter, David Schaub, Renato Dos Anjos and Roger Vizard for the Steamer character Nominated [84]

Sequel

Producer Gary Goetzman revealed in a January 2024 interview with ComicBook.com that a sequel to The Polar Express was being "worked out", indicating the project may have entered development.[85] It is unclear how far along the project is or if it has any chance of being greenlit.[86]

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Jeter passed away during the film's production, before he had recorded all of his lines, requiring Sogliuzzo to take over and re-record most of the dialogue for consistency. However, Jeter's voice can still be heard voicing Smokey and Steamer during the caribou scene.

References

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Further reading