The Polar Express is a 2004 computer-animated film based on the children's book of the same title by Chris Van Allsburg. Written, produced, and directed by Robert Zemeckis, the "human" characters in the film were "animated" using "live action" performance capture technique, with the exception of the waiters who dispense hot chocolate on the train, because their feats were impossible for animated actors to achieve. Performance capture technology incorporates the movements of live actors into animated characters. The film stars Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Jimmy Bennett, and Eddie Deezen, with Tom Hanks in four distinct roles. The film was produced by Castle Rock Entertainment in association with Shangri-La Entertainment, ImageMovers, Playtone and Golden Mean, for Warner Bros. The visual effects and performance capture were done at Sony Pictures Imageworks. The studio first released the $170 million film in both conventional and IMAX 3D theaters on Wednesday, November 10, 2004. It was the last film in which Michael Jeter made a contribution as he had died on March 30, 2003, and the film is dedicated to his memory.
On Christmas Eve, a boy lays in his bed, waiting for Santa Claus to come, unsure whether to believe in Santa. Finally he nods off to sleep, only to be awakened by the sound of a steam train outside. He runs outside and sees a train, The Polar Express, and meets the conductor. The conductor tells the boy that the train will take him to the North Pole and the boy decides to get on. On the train, he meets a girl who trusts in Santa Claus and the Christmas Spirit. The train stops to pick up another child - a younger, shy boy named Billy - but he doesn't seem to want to get on. The train starts to move and Billy runs to get on but falls over in the snow so the boy pulls the emergency brake to allow Billy to get on the train. The conductor is annoyed that someone has pulled the emergency brake, worried they will be late, but the girl explains why the boy stopped the train. Billy doesn't join the other children, instead staying in the last car of the train. All the boys and girls each receive a cup of hot chocolate, although Billy is left out as he is in the next car so the girl gets an extra cup and takes it to him. The boy then notices that the girl has left her ticket on her seat so he decides to take it to her. Whilst he is between the cars, the wind blows the ticket out of his hand and it flies away. The conductor asks the kids for their tickets and punches different letters in them. He punches 'B' and 'E' out of the boy's ticket and 'L' and 'E' out of a 'know-it-all' kid's ticket. As the girl's ticket is missing, the boy offers her his ticket but the conductor says that is not allowed as tickets are non-transferable. The conductor takes the girl to the next car and the know-it-all kid says that she will be thrown off the train for not having a ticket. The boy then notices that the girl's ticket has somehow found its way back onto the train, so he grabs it and follows them to return it to her. As he follows them along the roof of the train, he loses their track, and instead of finding the girl and the conductor, he finds a hobo. The hobo decides to help the boy find the girl. They ski on the roof of The Polar Express and the boy makes it to the front of the train just before it goes into flat top tunnel which only leaves 1 inch of clearance above the roof of the train. The boy finally finds the girl who is now in the engine room and driving the train whilst the driver and engineer replace the light on the front of the train. The boy stops the train as there are Caribou on the tracks ahead. They move the Caribou and the train starts again with the boy, the girl and the conductor standing on the front of the train. Inside the engine room, the throttle breaks and the train starts getting accelerating uncontrollably. Eventually the driver and engineer fix it just in time to stop the train as it skids across ice. The girl almost falls off the train so the conductor grabs her. The boy grabs the conductor to stop them both falling but he too starts slipping. The mysterious hobo appears and helps the boy by grabbing hold of him so they all don't fall. The ice starts to crack and break up but the train escapes onto tracks just in time. The boy returns the girl's lost ticket to her and the conductor punches the letters 'L' and 'E' out of it. Finally, the train comes to a halt in the centre of the North Pole. The boy and the girl feel bad for Billy who doesn't like Christmas, and after trying to convince him to stay with the group and to see Santa, the 3 of them accidentally release the car's brake and it separates from the train and hurtles down the track through the elf town. The hobo appears again and tells the boy to "take a break" before disappearing again as the car goes into a tunnel which opens out onto a turntable leading to several rail road tracks. The girl and Billy hear strange yet wonderful bells ringing in the distance, however the boy doesn't hear them. The girl and Billy decide to walk down a certain track after convincing the boy to follow them. They end up in one of many Santa's workshops. Accidentally stepping onto a moving conveyor belt, the trio are launched into a metal funnel used only to load up Santa's giant sack. They land on top of a mountain of presents and realize they have accidentally landed in Santa's giant bag of presents, where they also find the 'know-it-all' kid hunting for his gifts. The bag is flown to the North Pole Town Center by elves, and the four kids get out and rejoin the rest of the group. The elves bring out Santa's sleigh, and reindeers, that are wearing beautiful sounding bells, but the boy, who still doesn't fully believe in Santa, cannot hear them. But finally, after seeing Santa up close and speaking to him, the boy hears the ringing bells of Santa's sleigh. It is revealed that Santa will pick one of the kids on the train to give the "first gift of Christmas". Santa chooses the boy, and boy decides to have one of Santa's bells. After Santa flies off in his sleigh, the elves rejoice while the kids get back onto the train. As the kids get back onto the train, the conductor punches their tickets with more letters - the boy's ticket now has the word 'BELIEVE' punched out of it, the 'know-it-all' kid's says 'LEARN' and the girl's says 'LEAD'. When all the kids ask to see the bell from Santa's sleigh, the boy is horrified to find that it is missing as he put it in his robe pocket that has a giant hole. All the kids are returned to they respective houses. Depressed, the boy gets home and falls back to sleep. On Christmas morning, the boy goes downstairs and finds the bell under the tree with a note from Santa telling him to fix the hole in his pocket. The film ends with a grown up boy saying that the bell "still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe" and the screen fades to black.