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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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.)
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?
- In theaters: November 10, 2004
- On DVD or streaming: November 14, 2005
- Cast: Michael Jeter, Peter Scolari, Tom Hanks
- Director: Robert Zemeckis
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Magic and Fantasy, Adventures, Book Characters, Holidays, Trains
- Character Strengths: Courage, Curiosity
- Run time: 92 minutes
- MPAA rating: G
- MPAA explanation: all audiences
Themes & Topics
For kids who love animated adventures
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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.