The Polar Express

Movie review by
Nell Minow, Common Sense Media
The Polar Express Movie Poster Image
Popular with kids
Book-based treat is full of adventure and positive messages.
  • G
  • 2004
  • 92 minutes

Parents say

age 6+
Based on 67 reviews

Kids say

age 5+
Based on 87 reviews

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

We think this movie stands out for:

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

No educational or informational intent, however, there are many positive messages expressed.

Positive Messages

Filled with positive messages about the importance of believing, the value of friendship, respect for leadership and courage, and the beauty of being kind to others. Some specific messages: "The true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart," "It doesn’t matter where the train is going, it's deciding to get on that counts," and "There is no greater gift than friendship."

Positive Role Models & Representations

"Boy," the film's hero, is curious, questioning, and honest. Though he's rightfully fearful in numerous scenes, he overcomes his fear and always does the right thing. "Girl," the other leading child character exhibits ideals of behavior: courage, leadership, friendship, and loving kindness. Adults are portrayed as wise, caring, and intelligent. Only stereotype is the "smart" kid, who is smug and annoying, but does change over the course of the film.

Violence & Scariness

Continuous close calls: multiple careening rides (train, pneumatic tube) filmed from a child’s point-of-view; treacherous climbs and balancing atop the train; falls and lost kids; a runaway railway car; cracking ice beneath a speeding train; and a ghostly hobo appears to shatter into pieces at one point. But no one is injured, and the hobo reappears in fine form later.

Sexy Stuff

Toy/book/merchandise tie-ins.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that, like the book that inspired it, the The Polar Express has wonderful messages about the importance of believing, the value of friendship, respect for leadership and courage, and the beauty of being kind to others. But it's also an adventure, with lots of roller-coaster thrills and some scary characters that might be too intense and frightening for the youngest kids. The Express roars, speeds, and skids on its perilous journey to the North Pole. Sometimes out of control, sometimes racing against dangers and obstacles in its path, it's the center of a tale that's suspenseful throughout. The child heroes are frequently in danger -- from falls, getting lost, being left alone on a careening train, and navigating dark, shadowy places facing characters who may wish them harm. Also worth noting: The story focuses on a boy who doubts whether or not there is a Santa. (According to the movie, yessiree -- but the boy's initial uncertainty could spark questions in some kids.)


User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byecodad December 21, 2014


Having done some research, I was prepared for the lifeless animation and the plodding, padded story line. What I wasn't prepared for was the unnecessarily... Continue reading
Parent of a 3 and 5-year-old Written bymalakisteele April 19, 2019

Ignore the G rating

I tried showing this to my 3 and 5 year old and not only did they think it was scary, but they also didn’t like or understand it at all. I shouldn’t have assume... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old December 28, 2019


There may be violence, but it also so great. There may be no education or learning about anything due to no logic. How do they not fall off the train or maybe a... Continue reading
Kid, 10 years old November 12, 2020

I love it!

The Polar Express is a great movie! The only two things I didn't like about were that the animation was kinda funky and that if you still believe in Santa... Continue reading

What's the story?

A boy who is beginning to question Santa lies awake on Christmas Eve afraid he won't hear anything. He hears a sound and runs outside to see an enormous locomotive pull up in front of his house; the conductor invites him to board. The train is bound for the North Pole and our unnamed hero/narrator will have many adventures and find the answer to his questions before he wakes up in his own bed on Christmas morning.

Is it any good?

Director Robert Zemeckis has done a fairly good job of maintaining the integrity of the brief story as it is expanded to feature length. The complications of the journey are well-paced and consistent with the story's themes, though the know-it-all character becomes grating very quickly. It is less successful after the arrival at the North Pole, when the expansion starts to feel like filler, particularly when a nice selection of timeless Christmas standards on the soundtrack gives way to a lackluster rock song that brings the story to a standstill for no discernable reason.

The animators have done their best to preserve the look of Chris Van Allsburg's lovely illustrations. The result is attractive, if coarser and less graceful. There are moments of great beauty, especially the vertiginous ride as we watch a golden train ticket carried away by an eagle. And there are wonderfully imaginative images, dancing waiters pouring hot chocolate from silver pots with triple-spouts, Santa's huge workshops with viewing screens for naughty-nice monitoring and pneumatic tubes for transporting toys, and sometimes people.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what they believe about Santa, and also about the Lonely Boy and what they think his real gift was.

  • Families can also talk about each of the lessons punched into the tickets given to the children. Why was each of those lessons the right one for that child? They can talk about the difference between that which can be proven and that which must be believed without proof. When the conductor says, "Sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can't see," what is he talking about?

  • What is a "crucial year?" Why can't some people hear the bell? Who is the hobo and why is he there?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love animated adventures

Character Strengths

Find more movies that help kids build character.

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

Streaming options powered by JustWatch

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate