‘Polar Express’ Is the Creepiest Christmas Movie of All Time

With a $165 million budget and Tom Hanks playing multiple starring roles, The Polar Express had all the makings for an unforgettable Christmas classic. Based on Chris Van Allsburg’s award-winning picture book, the full-length film aimed to tell the story of a little boy traveling on a train to the North Pole. It seems like the perfect holiday adventure but, somewhere along the way, things got … weird. How did this movie go from spreading Christmas cheer to spreading Christmas fear? 

Conductor Sharon Roberts smiling on The Polar Express train, decorated with lights and covered in snow
The Polar Express train in Maine | Ben McCanna/Getty Images

The Polar Express CGI and animation left much to be desired

The 2004 release was IMAX’s first full-length, animated 3D feature. Fans were thrilled by the promise of new technology and flocked to the theaters for its wintry debut. It raked in $183.37 million at the box office, making it one of the highest-grossing Christmas movies of all time. These earnings are undoubtedly impressive, but its early reviews give a different picture of the film’s overall success. 

A review from CNN told readers that the movie was “at best disconcerting, and at worst, a wee bit horrifying.” Although the author was quick to praise more technical aspects, like the soundtrack and action sequences, the human characters were the weak point. 

An article from The Guardian shared similar sentiments as they recounted cinema’s biggest CGI fails. After struggling to describe what made the animated characters so eerie, the author finally realized that observing the actions of the movie’s main crew was “like watching animals dressed in skin.” 

It wasn’t just movie buffs taking offense at the awkward animation. A fan on Reddit asked the community, “Why did you find the Polar Express creepy?” Their post quickly garnered many responses, with one fan summing things up nicely: “The CGI for the most part. So many lifeless eyes.” 

The train takes a ride straight through uncanny valley

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Many viewers of the film felt that its animation floundered due to its creation of the “uncanny valley.” According to Scientific American, the uncanny valley is a state of uneasiness that occurs when we see human-like characters fail to behave like humans. In the case of The Polar Express, the characters’ hyperreal, CGI faces were at odds with their jerky movements and blank stares. 

Of course, it’s important to remember that the film was released in 2004. At the time, viewers were thrilled to see new 3D technology at work, and could only imagine where the industry would go from there. We’re just glad that The Polar Express was the starting point for animation design, not the grand finale. 

It helps if you don’t think about The Polar Express’ plot for too long

The Polar Express writers faced quite the challenge as they sought to transform a succinct picture book into a full-length movie. Perhaps that’s why the film — spanning one hundred minutes — has such a questionable plot, with jarring twists and dramatic dilemmas. 

It’s hard to ignore the fact that the movie centers around a grown train conductor taking kids in the middle of the night, without their parents’ knowledge or consent. Things become even more alarming when we get a better look at the train’s journey — filled with near-death ice accidents, lost tickets, and a person skiing on the roof. When the kids finally arrive at the North Pole and meet Santa, he gives off a haunting glow. 

Discussing the plot of the movie is actually quite difficult when you realize that none of the main characters have names. This may contribute to our inability to relate to them and also makes the fact that Tom Hanks voices five separate roles all the more confusing.  The Polar Express is streaming on Amazon Prime this holiday season if you’d like to experience some childhood nostalgia … or a nightmare before Christmas.