On Christmas Eve in the late 1950s, a boy witnesses a train called the Polar Express that is about to depart for the North Pole. When the boy examines the engine, the conductor allows him to board the train. The boy meets other children, including a girl and a know-it-all boy with a Brooklyn accent and a hyperactive personality. When the train picks up another boy, Billy, the hero boy applies the emergency brakes when Billy initially declines to board. The conductor summons a waiter team to give the children hot chocolate and the girl hides one under her seat to give to Billy. The girl and conductor go to deliver the hot chocolate cup to Billy, but the hero boy discovers the girl’s ticket is unpunched. He loses it before he can return it. The boy explains the lost ticket to the conductor, and the conductor takes her for a walk on the top of the train. The hero boy locates the lost ticket and pursues them.
The boy meets a hobo, who claims he is the owner of the train and King of North Pole. He helps the boy by skiing down the rooftops as the Polar Express goes down a steep slope. Before reaching Flat Top Tunnel, the boy jumps into the engine's coal tender and finds the girl is controlling the train. After the driver, Steamer, and his aide, Smokey, replace the engine's headlight, Steamer sees something unusual ahead and orders the train to be stopped; the cause is a big herd of caribou on the track. The hero boy applies the brakes and the engine on the train screeches to a halt. The conductor pulls Smokey’s beard several times, causing him to let out animal-like sound effects, and the caribou horde moves away. Afterwards, the cotter pin of the throttle sheers off causing the train to speed up and run out of control it crosses Glacier Gulch at dangerous speeds before derailing onto a frozen lake. The lost cotter pin falls off the train and pierces the ice, causing it to crack. Smokey uses his hairpin to repair the throttle and they manage to get the train back under control. The conductor sends Steamer to "steer" the train to the tracks on the other side before the train falls through the ice. The hero boy returns the girl’s lost ticket for the conductor to punch. The conductor takes the two kids to a train car where are many abandoned toys. The hobo scares the hero boy with an Ebenezer Scrooge puppet, and the boy retreats to the observation car. The train encounters auroras, and finally reaches the North Pole.
Upon arrival, kids form lines while the hero boy and girl see Billy depressed and alone in the observation car. They encourage Billy to go, but the carriage is separated when the hero boy steps on the coupler cut lever. While trying to find their way back to the group, the trio explores the city's industrial area until falling on a pile of presents. Meanwhile, the kids discover that the know-it-all kid is also in the sack. The gargantuan bag is placed on Santa’s sleigh, and elves remove the kids. As the reindeer are prepared, Santa arrives. A bell breaks loose from a harness, and the hero boy retrieves it. He first hears nothing, but when he believes, he hears the bell ring. Santa entrusts the boy with the bell, and then he leaves with his reindeer.
The elves re-attach the lost observation car back to the train, and the kids prepare to head home. The kids request the hero boy show the bell, but when he is devastated to learn that he has lost it through a hole in a pocket; he regains his spirit after Billy is taken home. The hero boy is taken home and everyone else bids him farewell. On Christmas morning, the boy's sister wakes him up to open presents, including the bell that he lost, which comes with a note from Santa saying that he found it on the seat of his sleigh. The parents hear no sound from the bell, and the boy leaves it on the table. The narrator ends the story by saying the bell only rings for those who truly believe.
The buildings at the North Pole refer to a number of buildings related to American railroading history. The buildings in the square at the city's center are loosely based on the Pullman Factory in Chicago's Pullman neighborhood, and the Control Center is based on the old Penn Station in New York City.
The locomotive featured in the film is an American 2-8-4 Berkshire type steam locomotive, with a cowcatcher, modeled after the Pere Marquette 1225, which had spent many years on static display near Spartan Stadium, where Chris Van Allsburg recalled playing on the engine when attending games as a child.
In July 2002, Warner Bros. approached the engine's owner, the Steam Railroading Institute, to study the engine. The engine in the film is modeled from the PM #1225's drawings and the sounds from recordings made of the 1225 operating under steam.
In addition to standard theatrical 35mm format, a 3-D version for IMAX was also released, generated from the same 3-D digital models used for the standard version. It was the first film not specially made for IMAX to be presented in this format and the first to open in IMAX 3-D at the same time as main flat release. The 3-D version out-performed the 2-D version by about 14 to 1. The 3-D IMAX version was released again for the 2005 Holiday season in 66 IMAX theaters and made another $7.5 million prior to Christmas. Due to its financial success, the IMAX version was re-released every year since then. The anaglyph 3-D version was released to DVD and Blu-ray Disc, October 28, 2008. Both formats include both the film's 2-D and 3-D versions. It was then re-released on Blu-ray 3D (stereoscopic) November 16, 2010, with new cover art.
The film was released on DVD as separated widescreen and full-screen versions in single and two-disc special editions (with bonus features) and on VHS on November 22, 2005, one year after the film came out. It was released on Blu-ray with bonus features and presented in the original widescreen aspect ratio on October 30, 2007.
The film's score was composed by Alan Silvestri. This film marks Silvestri's 11th time collaborating with Zemeckis. Other films Silvestri has scored include Cast Away, What Lies Beneath, Contact, Back to the Future, and Forrest Gump.
The Polar Express holds a score of 61 out of 100 based on 36 reviews at Metacritic, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Rotten Tomatoes, however, reports 55% approval based 199 reviews, putting it within "rotten"; the film's average rating on the site is 6.4/10. The critical consensus reads: "Though the movie is visually stunning overall, the animation for the human characters isn't lifelike enough, and the story is padded."
Roger Ebert gave the film a full 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." Richard Roeper gave a glowing review to the film as well, saying that it "remains true to the book, right down to the bittersweet final image." James Berardinelli gave it a 3.5/4, stating that it is "a delightful tale guaranteed to enthrall viewers of all ages", and ranked it as the 10th best film of 2004.
The character design and animation were criticized for dipping into the uncanny valley. 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". 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." Geoff Pevere of the Toronto Star stated, "If I were a child, I'd have nightmares. Come to think of it, I did anyway." Paul Clinton from CNN called it "at best disconcerting, and at worst, a wee bit horrifying".
Despite the polarized reception from critics, The Polar Express has been popular among audiences. The Independent reported in 2011 that the film "is now seen by many as a classic". CinemaScore reported that audiences gave the film a rare "A+" grade.
The film opened at #2 and earned $23,323,463 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 $30,629,146 since its Wednesday launch. The weekend total also included $2,100,000 from 59 IMAX theaters, for an IMAX theater average of $35,593, and had a $3,000,000 take since Wednesday. In its second weekend, it grossed another $15,668,101, averaging $4,293 from 3,650 venues and boosting the 12-day cumulative to $51,463,282 and over Thanksgiving weekend made another $19,389,927, averaging $5,312 from 3,650 venues and raising the 19-day cumulative to $81,479,861. The film has made $185,618,322 domestically (including IMAX re-releases), and $124,140,582 overseas for a total worldwide gross of $309,758,904.
The film had its network TV premiere on ABC, December 1, 2006. The airing brought in 13.2 million viewers, winning its timeslot and ranking 20th in the Nielsen ratings that week, according to TVTango.com.
In November 2007, SeaWorld Orlando debuted the Polar Express Experience, a Motion Simulator ride based on the film. The attraction is 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, and is now open annually during the Christmas season.
The 4D film, distributed by SimEx-Iwerks, has been shown at other amusement parks around the world including Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Dollywood (during the annual Smoky Mountain Christmas event), Vancouver Aquarium (2009 — 2010), and Warner Bros. Movie World (during the White Christmas events in 2010 and 2011).