Why is the $170-million 'Polar Express' getting derailed? (2023)

Sometimes people invent cars no one wants to buy. Sometimes people dream up soda pop no one wants to drink. And sometimes filmmakers make movies with an exotic new technology that no one wants to see, like, ahem, “The Polar Express.” A hugely expensive gamble that has landed with an Edsel-like thud at the box office, the $170-million Robert Zemeckis-directed film finds itself sandwiched between two other family movies, Pixar’s wildly successful “The Incredibles” and “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” which is getting a big rollout from Paramount Pictures this coming weekend.

As is often the case in Hollywood, the body was barely cold when the postmortems come flooding in. Last Friday, when “Polar Express” had been open for all of about 45 hours, a rival studio executive assessed its chances of success: “It’s a disaster.” By Monday, everyone was on the phone with typical expressions of faux concern. “Oh, that’s so horrible about ‘Polar Express,’ ” one agent said. “Warners must have black crepe in all the windows,” which is Hollywood-ese for, “Thank God I don’t have a client in that movie.”

If nothing else, “Polar Express” is a cautionary tale about how there are no sure things in Hollywood, even when a big star like Tom Hanks and a top director like Zemeckis are at the helm. Having bought the rights to the slender 29-page book years ago, Hanks teamed up with Zemeckis, who made “Forrest Gump” (1994) with the actor. The director has been one of Hollywood’s leading exponents of special-effects wizardry, dating back to his magical marriage of live action and cartoon thrills in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988).

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What went wrong? First off, special effects don’t come cheap -- and neither did the “Express” talent. When Hanks and Zemeckis took “Polar Express” to Universal Pictures, where there was a deal with Castle Rock Entertainment, the film’s producers, the studio was unenthusiastic about making a movie for which the two men would get not only $40 million in salary but 35% of the first-dollar gross -- 20% to Hanks, 15% to Zemeckis. The studio was also nervous about making such an expensive film with performance capture, a largely untested new technology that uses real actors whose facial and body movements become the template for digitized characters.

At one point, Universal and Warners considered making the film together, but when the talent refused to cut their prices, Universal bowed out.

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Warners eventually found a partner in Steve Bing, a real estate heir who is one of the many well-heeled outsiders who have been investing in movies in recent years, often to the detriment of their bank accounts (just ask Phil Anschutz, who lost untold millions bankrolling the flop “Around the World in 80 Days”). Bing put up about $85 million of his own money to co-finance the film, which barely made $30 million its first five days of release, far short of anyone’s expectations.

Even worse, the technology takes the star out of the movie. He may play five parts, but there’s no Tom Hanks in the film. Not only is his face gone, but the performance capture somehow leaches his trademark charm and everyday humanity off the screen as well. The technology also brings out the worst in Zemeckis. Earlier in his career, he made irresistibly airy, exuberant comedies, but his more recent films have been increasingly chilly and soulless, qualities that deaden “Polar Express” as much as its technology does.

Then the film’s performance-capture technology turned out to be a bigger turnoff than Warners imagined. Kids who saw the film’s TV spots had trouble identifying with the characters, who appear not only remote and zombie like, but oddly old-fashioned, as if they’d escaped from a Norman Rockwell etching. As Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern put it: “It’s not just an epidemic of dead eyes, but deadened features that make the kids look bleak, sleep deprived or simply sad.” When you’re competing against the lively, cutting-edge technology of a Pixar film like “The Incredibles” or a film with the playful charm of “SpongeBob,” sad and sleep deprived is a tough sell.

The biggest cause for second-guessing has come from Warners’ decision to release the film five days after “The Incredibles,” which is sort of like a guy taking a girl out on a date right after she’s spent the night with George Clooney. Pixar is a tough act to follow.

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On the other hand, what was Warners to do? If you have a Christmas movie, you can’t wait until Christmas to release it, because after the holiday your business drops off a cliff. Warners could’ve waited until Thanksgiving weekend, but that would have given the film a shorter run and put it opposite another holiday film, “Christmas With the Kranks.” Although it seems hard to believe, Warners was actually more concerned about coming out after “SpongeBob” than “The Incredibles,” in part because the studio thought the Pixar film might underperform. Warners’ thinking may have been influenced by the fact that “Incredibles” director Brad Bird’s last film, “Iron Giant” (1999), was a flop for Warners, which perhaps made it easier for the studio to take a dim view of his new film.

Warners is putting a brave face on things, saying it’s way too early to declare defeat, noting that exit polls have been strong for “Polar Express.” Studio executives also point to “Elf,” a New Line film that had a $31-million opening weekend last year, yet went on to make $173 million in domestic grosses. Alas, “Elf” cost about $140 million less than “Express” and got far better reviews. Warners discounts the high-profile bad reviews for “Express,” saying that elite media publications like the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly (the Time-Warner-owned magazine that gave the film a C-plus) are out of touch with heartland moviegoers.

However, a quick search turned up negative reviews in such towns as Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C. Writing in the Charlotte Observer, Lawrence Toppman said that while the film “would have made a superb half-hour TV special, Zemeckis has created a steroidal monster with a heart about one size too small.”

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What really seems like wishful thinking is Warners’ belief that the film’s box-office performance will somehow improve as the holidays grow near. This ignores the fact that studio tent-pole movies don’t build an audience from word of mouth, the way independent films do. Warners doesn’t grow its movies; it uses marketing to create an opening-weekend juggernaut, knowing the audience will drop off steeply immediately afterward when some other studio shells out $40 million to seduce moviegoers into seeing their blockbuster. Since the first “Harry Potter” film arrived in November 2001, Warners has released 10 Big Event movies. All 10 have dropped off at least 36% in their second weekend; seven of the 10 have dropped off at least 49%. Not one of them had as low an opening-three-day-weekend total as “Polar Express.”

The overseas prospects for “Express” aren’t especially encouraging, even though Warners’ “The Last Samurai” (2003), which was prematurely labeled a flop by the media, ended up making a ton of money across the globe. Christmas movies don’t travel so well. “Elf” made $173 million here, but only $46 million overseas. “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000) made $260 million in the U.S., only $80 million abroad.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? Not really. No matter how poorly “Express” does, it will hardly be Warners’ biggest flop, a distinction, at least recently, that belongs to “Looney Tunes,” a would-be franchise financed entirely by the studio that showed up dead on arrival at almost the same time last year. Hanks may be in a slump, but if he survived “Joe vs. the Volcano,” he’ll surely survive this.

Bing may have ignored the oldest maxim in Hollywood -- never spend your own money -- but he has plenty more money to lose.

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It could be argued that it’s crazy to spend $170 million to make a movie, but you can always point to “Titanic” as proof that the most extravagant bet can sometimes pay off. “Polar Express” simply stands as yet another reminder that, no matter how much today’s sprawling media giants try, they’ll never be able to take the risk out of the movie business.


How successful was The Polar Express? ›

The film was originally a box office disappointment upon release, grossing $286 million against a $165–170 million budget. However, later re-releases helped propel the film's gross to $314 million worldwide. The film was later listed in the 2006 Guinness World Records as the first all-digital capture film.

How much money does The Polar Express make? ›

The Polar Express (2004)
Theatrical Performance
Domestic Box Office$188,578,855Details
International Box Office$124,140,582Details
Worldwide Box Office$312,719,437
Further financial details...

How long did The Polar Express last? ›

The Polar Express leaves the North Pole at midnight, the mantle clock in the boy's living room shows that he arrives home at midnight. Somehow, the trip from the North Pole to Michigan -- calculated to take two days -- takes less than a minute.

What is The Polar Express supposed to be about? ›

The Polar Express is the tale of a boy's dreamlike train ride to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. Like all stories worth knowing, it's rich enough in image and feeling to accommodate many interpretations. Chris Van Allsburg, the author of the book, calls his story a celebration of childhood wonder and imagination.

Will there be a Polar Express 2? ›

There has been rumors, but no confirmation of a Polar Express 2. Warner Bros. A few rumors (and holiday hopes) have circled around the internet, but at the moment, it is not at all certain if there will be a "Polar Express 2."

How much money does Tom Hanks make per year? ›

Tom Hanks doesn't need any introduction as we all know and love him. Some of his most iconic and famous roles movies are Da Vinci Code, Forrest Gump, etc. He has given his voice in Toy Story 3, which made the movie exceptional. According to various sources, as of 2022, his annual income is $35 million.

How much money has Tom Hanks made off of Polar Express? ›

You won't believe how much Hanks made for his Polar Express roles (he voiced seven characters, to be exact). According to the Los Angeles Times, the actor and producer made a $40 million salary plus 20% of the first-dollar gross, which adds up to an estimated $100 million total.

What is the number 1 grossing Christmas movie of all time? ›

The Santa Clause tops the list with $470.1 million and also has the best average with $156.8 million.

Is there a real Polar Express train? ›

The Polar Express Train at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, California, is so popular, it sells out early nearly every year. This ride includes many elements of the movie, including the dancing waiters who serve hot chocolate and cookies!

What age is Polar Express for? ›

The Polar Express, age 6+. Though in the end this a beautiful affirmation of the true meaning of the holiday, some kids may wonder why the main character, a little boy, is doubting Santa's existence on Christmas Eve.

Does the Polar Express have a bathroom? ›

THE POLAR EXPRESS™ Train Ride is not responsible for the on-time performance of mass transit. Trains will not be held for late arrivals and tickets are non-refundable. Are there restrooms on board the train? A limited number of restrooms are available on board the train.

How old is Polar Express? ›

The Polar Express
AuthorChris Van Allsburg
CountryUnited States
GenreChildren's picture book
PublisherHoughton Mifflin
Publication dateNovember 12, 1985
11 more rows

Does The Polar Express say Santa isn't real? ›

Then at the end, they more or less say, obliquely, that Santa doesn't exist. Meaning, they say that over time, as people grow up, they pretty much everyone doesn't believe in Santa any more (except the narrator who still does).

What is the meaning of the Hobo in Polar Express? ›

Hero Boy tells him he wants to believe, then, before he can finish his sentence, Hobo interrupts. He suggests Hero Boy is afraid of being “bamboozled” or let down. This scene cements Hobo's purpose. He is a personification of Hero Boy's fears and doubts and is meant to test his ability to believe.

Is The Polar Express movie a dream? ›

However, the story wasn't a dream, as the main character tells Billy and the bell at the end proves. Magic can explain how the train could make that incredible journey in less than a night and survive all those perils. It also explains how the children were able to stay safe no matter what.

What year is Polar Express set in? ›

The year on the magazine is 1956. Warner Bros. Although there isn't a ton of information concerning exactly when the film takes place, the Hero Boy has a copy of a Saturday Evening Post magazine from December 29, 1956. Since the film takes place on Christmas Eve, it's safe to say that it's at least set in 1957.

Are there different versions of The Polar Express? ›

on the first disc you get the real 3D version and a 2D version.

Why Polar Express is the best Christmas movie? ›

The reason The Polar Express is such a great movie, is because it takes kids on a wild adventure to the North Pole, and keeps the fire of Christmas magic burning in them.

Who is the No 1 richest actor in the world? ›

These are the Top 10 Richest Actors in the world in 2022:
  • #1 Jerry Seinfeld– US$ 1 Billion.
  • #2 Shah Rukh Khan– $770 million.
  • #3 Tom Cruise– $600 million.
  • #4 Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen– $550 million.
  • #5 Robert De Niro– $520 million.
  • #6 Reese Witherspoon– $430 Million.
  • #7 Sylvester Stallone– $410 Millions.

Who is the richest Hollywood actor? ›

Let's dive into the list of the top richest actors in the world-
RankRichest Actors In The WorldNet worth (USD)
1Tyler Perry$1 Billion
2Jerry Seinfeld$950 Million
3Shah Rukh khan$700 Million
4Tom Cruise$600 Million
6 more rows

How much does Tom Cruise make for Top Gun: Maverick? ›

While talking about the cast, we already know how much Tom Cruise made through Top Gun Maverick, it is $20 million but he took home a huge cheque of $100 million as Cruise also earns from the box office profits. It made him the highest-paid actor of this year so far.

› the-polar-express ›

The Polar Express on DVD November 22, 2005 starring Tom Hanks, Chris Coppola, Eddie Deezen, Michael Jeter. A young boy lies awake in his room one snowy Christma...
Released in 2004, Robert Zemeckis' "The Polar Express" has stood the test of time, and it remains a beloved Christmas movie today. The film follow...
The Polar Express: Directed by Robert Zemeckis. With Tom Hanks, Leslie Zemeckis, Eddie Deezen, Nona Gaye. On Christmas Eve, a young boy embarks on a magical adv...

Is The Polar Express a masterpiece? ›

From a technical standpoint, The Polar Express is a masterpiece.

How much did Tom Hanks make for The Polar Express? ›

You won't believe how much Hanks made for his Polar Express roles (he voiced seven characters, to be exact). According to the Los Angeles Times, the actor and producer made a $40 million salary plus 20% of the first-dollar gross, which adds up to an estimated $100 million total.

What is the highest grossing Christmas movie? ›

The Grinch

Why The Polar Express is great? ›

The reason The Polar Express is such a great movie, is because it takes kids on a wild adventure to the North Pole, and keeps the fire of Christmas magic burning in them.


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