The Polar Express (Pere Marquette 1225) History & Movie Review

It's the Holiday Season once again, and as a result, I figured I'd mix things up a bit and discuss a Christmas Movie, The Polar Express, and it's significance to the railroad industry as a whole.

The movie is based off of a 1985 book of the same name, which itself is based off of a locomotive, specifically Pere Marquette 1225. The author, Chris Van Allsburg, grew up in Grand Rapids, MI, and visited the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, MI, where the locomotive was in service and on display, which it remains to this day.

According to it's fan-page, Pere Marquette 1225 is "is a class N-1 2-8-4 Berkshire-type steam locomotive". As someone who's interests in railroading are more in the routes themselves and not so much the engines, I really don't know what that means.

That said, the locomotive really is gorgeous, and it doesn't take much imagination to see how glorious it would be as a Christmas steam engine. Take a look at it in action:

The locomotive was put into service in 1941, making it among the last steam engines constructed before diesel would become the norm for railroads. It was in service until 1951, after which time the Pere Marquette Railway had been purchased by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. It was saved from scrap in 1957 after it was purchased by Michigan State University, where it remained on static display until 1971, when it was rebuilt to begin service once again at the Steam Railroad Institute.

Van Allsburg was so stricken by the locomotive, and specifically it's 1225 numbering as symbolic for December 25th, that he wrote the novel based almost entirely on the locomotive. That being said, in both the novel and the film, that is pretty much the only thing in reality that the locomotive has to do with the story, which is entirely a Christmas fantasy.

The book was before my time, and the film was after my time growing up when I would've been interested in it, so other than bits and pieces, I had never actually seen the movie in it's entirety until this week, when my girlfriend decided we should watch it for Christmas.

With that said, I know this movie is for kids, and in many ways it seems like a children's Christmas story, but at the same time, there are many really dark moments in this movie that would freak me out as a kid. Overall, I had mixed feelings about it. Some have complained about the art style of the movie, and while some of the characters do look a little off, I thought overall the computer animation was pretty good. It also has a very nice soundtrack that kids are sure to love.

The movie begins when a nameless child is trying hard to sleep the night before Christmas, eagerly waiting the possibility of Santa showing up. As soon as he appears to fall asleep, he is awoken by the sound of a train running outside his front window.

Street Running Trains are awesome.
He is beckoned inside by a conductor (because kids should always get in vehicles alone without any parental supervision at night; but whatever), and in his coat pocket appears a Golden Ticket for a round-trip ride on the Polar Express to the North Pole. He isn't alone though, as many other kids are North Pole bound on this train.

Then we meet some of the other kids, including this train nerd:
My guy. Image
Except he's wrong when he says the PM 1225 was built by Baldwin, indeed it was actually built by the Lima Locomotive Works.

Now about the route itself...this is the scariest train route in the entire world. Again, I know this is a kids movie, but the grades, speed and moves that this train pulls off is more akin to The Fast and the Furious. See for yourself:

I guess it's a fun ride to say the least. And since miraculously no one was hurt, the ride continues to the North Pole, with hot chocolate for the kids. Throughout the movie, or at the very least during the first few scenes with him, I thought the conductor was a little edgy for the kids. Which is probably how it would be in real life, the conductor wanting an orderly and on time train, but we've already established that this movie is well into fantasy.

The girl in the car loses her ticket, and it appears is going to be thrown off the train, leading the main character to follow her and the conductor, and cross cars alone, in a storm, at max speed...this inevitably ends badly, and the kid finds himself on the roof of the car with a ghost, and is able to make his way down to the engine where the girl is now running the train. And that doesn't even cover what happened to the ticket!

After crisis is averted yet again, the kid finds himself in the first car, full of marionette puppets and the remnants of unwanted and thrown away toys. This is another jarring scene that does nothing other than add some creepy elements to a movie that really doesn't need it.

They finally make their way to the North Pole, and the girl, another boy and the protagonist get separated from the rest of the group, and must cross railroad ties that must be hundreds of feet up with nothing to guard against them falling.

Is this a Skyrim level? Nope, a kids movie.
While this scene will freak anyone out who's afraid of heights, I really think the animation and art style of the North Pole, and this scene in particular is amazing.

Fast forwarding a bit, and Santa is about to depart on his sleigh for the night (it's been 11:55 for most of the 2nd half of the movie). The kid doesn't see Santa until he screams out that he believes. Ultimately, I'm not sure what, if any message this movie has, but it certainly has one, since upon the return trip, the conductor punches each of the kid's tickets with a cryptic note.

"Lead" for the girl who was briefly engineering the train.
"Learn" for the know-it-all kid.
"Believe" for the protagonist

The return trip is much less eventful than when they headed to the North Pole.

Overall, this is a good movie provided you don't take it seriously, or try to decipher it as anything more than simply a Christmas train movie. There are parts that seem a little overblown as well as some needlessly dark moments, but it ultimately survives under it's own weight.

Much like the Polar Express.

As always I hope you enjoyed today's blog, and thanks as always for reading! And finally, have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, a Crazy Kwanzaa, a tip-top Tet, and a solemn, dignified Ramadan.


  1. The original concept was for this to be a live action film. The studio was looking for a locomotive close to Grand Rapids, where the story is set, when they contacted the MSTRP (aka Steam Railroading Institute). When they found out what it would cost to lay tracks down a street in Grand Rapids, they decided to make the film into an animated adventure.


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