Tom Hanks’ Most Terrifying Movie Ever Is Killing It On Streaming

Tom Hanks' The Polar Express is in the top 10 most-streamed movies on HBO Max.

By Nathan Kamal | Published

tom hanks

The occasional over-the-top moral panic movie aside, Tom Hanks is best known for satisfying, warm dramatic fare. He is not particularly known for horror movies or trying to scare his audiences, but one of his most popular modern movies is also his most eerie: 2004’s The Polar Express, which is currently in the top 10 most popular movies streaming on HBO Max. Although the Robert Zemeckis movie was intended as a modern Christmas classic for children (and was adapted from the children’s book by Jumanji author Chris Van Allsburg) the combination of early, unrefined motion-capture visuals and some very weird narrative choices make this Tom Hanks’ scariest movie.

tom hanks

The Polar Express has a relatively simple, yet odd plot: a train picks up children who have grown skeptical of the existence of Santa Claus. A young boy in Grand Rapids, MI, referred to only as Hero Boy (voiced and motion-capture acted by future Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson), boards the train and is whisked away to the North Pole. Along the way, he will encounter other doubtful children, singing elves, bizarre puppets, and Santa’s gulag-like workshop. In the end, he comes to believe in Santa once again (after all, he sees and talks to him, which makes believing easy), though the final time jump raises some oddly disquieting questions of faith and belief.

tom hanks
Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler as a singing elf

The Polar Express stars Tom Hanks in an Eddie Murphy-like sextuple role, portraying the conductor of the titular locomotive, Santa Claus, a terrifying Ebenezer Scrooge puppet, a random hobo, the father of the main child protagonist, and the voice of the grown, adult child protagonist. For all but the last of those, Tom Hanks actually physically acted out the role in a black box set, which Robert Zemeckis then later animated. Reportedly, Zemeckis initially wanted Tom Hanks to play every single role in the movie, which was too exhausting for the two-time Academy Award winner. 

This was not the first time that Robert Zemeckis had put Tom Hanks through a physical wringer. For their second collaboration Cast Away, Tom Hank gained and lost 50 pounds in order to convincingly portray a man marooned on an island, which he has since said contributed to his later development of type 2 diabetes. Zemeckis is known as both a highly demanding filmmaker and a big fan of emerging technology, which is why The Polar Express is generally regarded as the first entirely motion-capture animated feature film. 

tom hanks

And it shows. The Polar Express is terrifying, not because of the story (which, again, has its own odd creepiness), but because of its deep, unrelenting dive into the uncanny valley. While motion-capture technology had already produced fine performances like Andy Serkis’s Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was still in its infancy in 2004. We keep seeing Tom Hanks in different guises, but unlike live-action multiple roles, we are forced to view them as different, not quite natural entities. Tom Hanks is one of our most charismatic and accomplished actors, but even he is no match for the uncanny valley.

Despite all this, The Polar Express has managed to become something of a perennial holiday watch alongside It’s a Wonderful Life (a movie about a suicidal man and the darkest timeline) and Home Alone (which is about a dysfunctional family and loneliness). It turns out, Christmas movies are pretty scary.