He sees a big express train on his street. A conductor (Tom Hanks) implores him to board, and, it being a movie, the boy does so. The train compartment has many children passengers, with no adults in sight except for the conductor.
Most of the children are extras without lines. But our Hero Boy quickly befriends a nice, pretty black girl (Nona Gaye). He also endures conversations with a nasal-voiced know-it-all (Eddie Deezen), a stereotype reminiscent of the late character actor Arnold Stang, or Horshack from "Welcome Back Kotter", or Screech from "Saved By the Bell". A small meek boy (Peter Scolari) is a late arrival.
The black girl loses her train ticket and is apparently evicted from the train. The Hero Boy finds the ticket, but as it flutters about, he is unable to secure it, and ends up chasing it outside the train, where he meets a pseudo-hobo (Tom Hanks). Because it is a movie, he ends up back inside the train with the ticket, and is reunited with the black girl, etc.
The train finally arrives at the North Pole, where Santa (Tom Hanks) and a gazillion lookalike elves hold forth. The train returns home, and the Hero Boy must part from his attractive black would-be girlfriend.
How others will see it. The Polar Express cost 165M to make, a substantial portion of which was presumably Tom Hanks' salary. The film eventually turned a profit with a 300M worldwide gross, excluding video sales and rentals. Despite featuring the ever-likable Tom Hanks, the movie drew mixed reviews, but did manage a slew of festival nominations, including three from the Oscars and one from BAFTA (in the Best Children's Film category).
Today at imdb.com, The Polar Express has a lofty 140K user votes, and a middling-plus user rating of 6.6 out of 10. Women over 45 grade it higher at 7.1, while men aged between 30 and 45 grade it lowest at 6.4.
User reviews are mostly positive, and extol its heartwarming and magical properties. Naysayers exist, of course, and although their user reviews tend to be voted down, they can be found. They complain about the weird "motion capture" animation that simulates real movement all too well. They complain about the unnecessary songs, the plot holes, the dancing waiters, etc.
How I felt about it. My biggest complaint is about how bland the children's characters are, with the exception of the stereotypical Know-It-All. The black girl is essentially a kindly adult in the body of a child. The adult characters adopt Tom Hanks' persona: mildly quirky but with all the rough edges sanded off.
Since The Polar Express is a fantasy, I guess we can accept that the children are dressed like it is 75 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 10 degrees with a wind chill, yet never become cold. The hobo can build a roaring fire on top of a moving train without worry that G-forces or wind will allow the fire to extend to his clothes.
One wonders what the point of the story is. The Hero Boy learns that there really is a Santa, except of course there isn't. If your parents don't buy you any presents, you won't have any. Oh, and by the way, you are going to die someday. That's another secret your parents are keeping from you.