The Ride of a Lifetime: The 15-Year Anniversary of The Polar Express

by Nicholas Sathi ’20

Every Christmas season, families come together to celebrate their favorite traditions and reflect upon the birth of Christ in the company of loved ones. Elegant dinners, lovely music, and thoughtful gifts offer a sense of joy and relaxation. But perhaps one of the most important aspects of a true family Christmas celebration is the movie choice. This year’s Christmas season is extra special in this respect as it marks the 15-year anniversary of one of the most successful Christmas films ever produced: The Polar Express

Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks, the film depicts a heartwarming Christmas story about the power of belief. Based on the 1985 children’s book of the same name authored by Chris Van Allsburg, the story is one to which children all over the world have been able to relate to for decades. The protagonist, a nameless boy from Michigan, has his doubts as to whether or not Santa Claus is real. On Christmas Eve one year, he sees a train suddenly appear outside of his house, and when he asks the conductor where it is going, he learns that he has an opportunity to go to the North Pole. The boy is at the age when Santa’s existence is up for discussion, so the conductor’s advice to get on board is the first step in helping to erase all of his doubts. Eventually, after a long and treacherous journey, he and the many other children riding the Polar Express make it to the North Pole. The boy not only gets to meet Santa Claus, but he even gets to keep one of the sleigh bells. The unnamed hero watches his deepest desires become reality right before his eyes the next morning on Christmas Day. 

This movie is an excellent selection to watch with family on Christmas as it appeals to an audience of all ages. Certainly, children will remain convinced and hopeful that their beloved Santa Claus is real, but the message is much more than belief in one person; the symbolism behind the story extends far beyond our childhood Christmas memories. The boy takes a risk by going to the North Pole, leaving his sister, Sarah, mom, and dad behind. From speeding down a steep hill to racing through tunnels with hardly any clearance, the boy wouldn’t have expected the perilous action he endured inside and outside the train car. Nonetheless, he embarked on the journey to see what he hoped to believe. This is the message and theme that applies to all of us in our daily lives. We should be willing to go the extra mile to pursue our beliefs. While remembering the birth of Christ, we can apply this message to our faith and understand what we are meant to be doing. From top to bottom, the film is a great way to spend time, as all people can take away a valuable lesson from the film.

In addition to its status as a highly-ranked Christmas movie, The Polar Express was the product of various revolutionary innovations in the film industry at the time of its release. Above all of its many unique characteristics, the motion capture technique used to animate every character made the film the first in history to implement such technology. Although this technique has been around for nearly one hundred years, in recent years, it has rapidly become more advanced and started producing some truly lifelike figures on the screen. The process itself involves translating the movements of human actors into lifelike animated characters through sophisticated computer-generated imaging technology. What results is a slightly simplified version of characters. As such, critics were quick to point out the fact that the eyes of the people in the movie appearing to look less lively. 

Regardless, The Polar Express was incredibly successful, and it has remained so over the past 15 years. Since its release in 2004, the film has earned over $300,000,000 worldwide. Much of this success has been captured through the numerous nominations and awards the movie has earned. Three of these nominations were for the Oscar Awards, and while the film did not win any, simply being nominated was an impressive feat on its own.

Many people know The Polar Express for its music soundtrack, composed by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard. Some of the songs featured in the film are now Christmas favorites, and Christmas concerts all over the country include its famous soundtrack. In fact, Believe, which highlights the vocals of renowned singer Josh Groban, won a Grammy Award in 2006. This famed soundtrack has been a testament to the true beauty the film has given us across all forms of art.

Nowadays, the influence of The Polar Express is also witnessed in the many tourist attractions that exist to honor the film’s legacy. Train excursions have been developed throughout the world, such as one in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, to allow riders to relive the film’s spirit of the Christmas season.

So this year, when you and your family are on the couch on Christmas Eve, aimlessly flipping through channels or scrolling past Netflix movies, watch The Polar Express. Perhaps the movie’s magic will help make this holiday, as Sarah said, “The most beautiful-est, most wonderful-est Christmas ever.”