The Polar Expressay

Anecdote time.

A few years ago, my younger cousin was beginning to doubt, so one day, finally, he went to his mother for reassurance.

“Mom? Do you believe in Santa?”

This is a tough situation because, first of all, the kid has trusted you with one of his innermost fears, a sneaking doubt that he wishes would just evaporate, a sneaking doubt that he never used to experience when he was younger. Now you have to answer properly because this is a big deal question and it has taken a lot of courage for him to trust you with it.

Next, it’s hard because he’s at the age where it’s too early to just rip the band-aid off and admit the truth, but at the same time, he’s too old for a bald-faced lie because he’s going to remember asking this question and that you bald-face lied and he won’t trust you ever again.

So what do you do?

My aunt, thinking quickly (and amazingly), said, “… I believe… in the… spirit… of Santa.”

And he nodded sagely and said, “Yeah, I believe in the spirit of Santa too.”


Belief is a pretty big deal this time of year – not necessarily in Santa, or even in the religious aspects. I always try to believe in the spirit of the season, and the importance of family and friends, or whatever. The inherent gentleness inside all of us. The potential for peace. That stuff is what all of the songs are about, anyway.

This year I’m in a bit of a funk. It’s not down to any one thing, but these days it seems like it’s a little difficult to believe in all of that in general. Due to that, I wanted to look at the Christmas animated movie that is entirely about belief, but that also leaves me with too many questions to be comfortable.

If you want to be an awful cynic about it, you can do a surface reading of The Polar Express (the movie, anyway – I haven’t read the book and I don’t know if or how it differs) that goes like this:

  • The Pol Ex tells kids it’s a buzzkill to be skeptical
  • No, really. Main Boy is always questioning Main Girl and it’s depicted as if Main Boy is a huge buzzkill and Main Girl is always right anyway and all his questioning does is make her doubt herself, but what if she one day is wrong? Is she really not supposed to listen to criticism or “sober second judgement” ever? So when her ticket says “LEAD” at the end, what, is she supposed to be a dictator?
  • Billy is told to just buy into Christmas™ because everyone else is doing it, it doesn’t matter what his lived experiences are
  • Billy is told to trust some elves and a magical gift dude who has never given him a present before because everyone else is doing it, it doesn’t matter what his lived experiences are, and also, all of those previous Christmases that didn’t work out were… his fault?
  • There’s a ghost on this train
  • No, really, there’s a ghost and he’s extremely creepy, and there’s also a room full of terrifying marionettes and the ghost makes one of Scrooge move and yell existentially terrifying things at Main Boy for kicks
  • There are so many potentially child-murdering fuckups on this magical journey, and the conductor, engineers, and all of the elves should get fired

But I’m not an awful cynic. All of the “don’t be skeptical” messaging that seems to be going on is rather undercut by Fourth, Arrogant Kid’s entire existence. It’s not that you shouldn’t be skeptical or curious or even self-conscious and doubtful – all of those are essential things. It’s just that there are times, such as when you’re about to die for the fifth time in a row on this bullshit train journey, that you need to kind of just trust yourself. And your friends. And, I guess, God, or something. Whatever your guiding light is. And on Christmas Eve at 5 minutes to midnight, your guiding light is “The Spirit of Christmas.”

Billy’s subplot is strange, though. If you’ve got nothing productive to say about poverty or neglect or whatever is going on with Billy, then, um, maybe don’t include it and give it a simplistic magical solution.

As for the ghost and the terrifying stuff, I really like it. I find it quite comforting, actually. Whenever the ghost shows up I feel inexplicably safe (yes, even when he’s marionetting Scrooge). It’s likely because the ghost’s entire existence is to mock the kid for being skeptical. Sometimes skepticism needs to be mocked (because you’re being a dick, Declan), and the times to mock skepticicm are basically Christmas time.

I also like all of the almost-death because it’s fun to watch, so sue me. I’m not a fan of “In the real world these people would be so fired” criticisms in general because, first of all, duh, this is a movie, if you meant to watch real life for an hour and a half you took a wrong turn somewhere, and second of all, IDK, have you seen the White House lately aidhfjsdnkandcka

But here’s some less awful cynical critique.

The culmination of Main Boy’s doubt vs belief conflict has him turn away from struggling to see Santa behind columns of elves, and turn away from reindeer anxiously trying to fly while their bells jingle absolutely silently, and close his eyes. “OK. OK. I believe. I… believe…”

It’d be a pretty shallow movie if just seeing Santa confirmed Santa’s existence. It’d be pretty shallow too if the sound of the sleigh bells is what did it. But no, it’s neither of those things. Main Boy can’t hear the bell until he lets himself believe, tells himself he believes, insists that he believes. It’s more about the fear of believing in something in case it turns out to not be true, or if it turns out to not be all you imagined, and you get hurt.

The sound of the bell becomes concrete evidence of Main Boy’s belief, instead of being concrete evidence of the existence of Santa and all of the magic around him. This is all well and good, because although concrete evidence of the magic is what Main Boy has been looking for this whole time, finding that evidence can’t possibly give him what he needs. The problem is, once you prove something with concrete evidence, you can’t really believe it anymore, not truthfully, because then it’s just a fact. “The Spirit of Christmas” is something you believe in, not something you prove.

What I don’t like about the sound of the bell is what’s said about it at the very end of the movie. Main Boy, having grown up into Tom Hanks (like everyone else in this universe), talks about how his friends and even his sister all one by one found that a year finally came around when they could no longer hear the sound of the bell, but Main Boy always could. That’s the part that just doesn’t work for me, because if it’s supposed to be a point about kids having a specific way of believing as opposed to adults, then Main Boy Who is Now Tom Hanks should really not be able to hear it as an adult. And if instead it’s supposed to be about how the Polar Express experience itself was a lasting thing that ensured he would always be a little bit more childlike and believey than everyone else, I’m not a fan of that either, because that’s weird, and the train almost fell through ice and went down a roller coaster, and, I don’t know, it just doesn’t work for me.

Maybe they just didn’t know how to end it otherwise, so they went with, “Our parents couldn’t hear it but we could but then all the other kids grew up and couldn’t and while I grew up into Tom Hanks I still could, TA-DAAAA.”

(that has nothing whatsoever to do with this, nothing at all, but I can’t even think the “word” “ta-da” without thinking about this so)

I’d rather think about the duality of what’s strictly, factually real here, and what’s not but still kind of is. All of that junk is firmly on my playlist: magical realism, Life of Pi, etc. When Main Boy wakes up on Christmas morning, he rips his pocket, even though at 5 to midnight the night before he already ripped his pocket as he made his way outside to see the train. There’s some concrete evidence that the polar experience was a dream.

But then his sister finds the bell wrapped under the tree, with a note from Santa referencing that he lost it the previous night.

Two pieces of evidence, proving two different and conflicting realities.

Their mom comes over and asks what he’s got, and asks who it’s from.

“Santa!” they tell her, and her “Santa, really?” answer sounds really skeptical. I don’t know how it’s possible to instruct an actress to read that short little line and somehow convey that she knows Santa isn’t real while humouring her kids and being a little bit confused but not overly worried about it, but, they did it. Or maybe I’m just reading that into it, but it really does sound like she’s doing double duty there.

And if she doesn’t believe in Santa, and if it’s her and her husband who are putting the gifts under the tree and pretending they’re from Santa, and if the bell is not from her and her husband, then Santa is both real and not real in this universe, which is… interesting.

Belief is a tricky little abstract concept. The duality of “Santa is real!” and “But he’s not, actually!” and then again “But he still kind of is, ultimately!” is interesting but it doesn’t have much to contribute on the subject. It probably comes back to the important climactic moment where Main Boy decides to believe. Deciding to believe in something is big, important, crucial, but in this movie, it also happens right before Main Boy sees Santa up close and actually talks to him. Metaphorically it’s nice I guess; it grants catharsis. But choosing to believe in something, even if it’s “The Spirit of Christmas,” is not a thing that you do one time and then that’s it, you’re set. Faith gets shaken. Time moves on, you get older, you lose people, unexplained things happen in “free and fair” elections, and it takes near-constant work to remain believey, no matter what it is you happen to choose to believe in.

I’m of two minds, fittingly. I like that The Polar Express illustrates belief the way that it does, but I also think its conclusion is a little too simplistic for the big concepts it’s trying to discuss. It’s why I prefer A Christmas Carol and Arthur Christmas – both of those have pretty simplistic ideas at their hearts. A Christmas Carol meshes generosity of spirit (and wealth) with the Christmas season, and Arthur Christmas is about doing your job for the right reasons and very much masculinity all day with the masculinity oh my God it’s entirely about masculinity. Simple ideas expanded with detailed stories and characters. Pol Ex is more about simple characters grappling with big ideas, and, maybe it’s just me, but I like the “simple ideas, complex characters/exploration” type better. They seem neater, cleaner, and ultimately more satisfying.

But there’s really nothing like the train materializing out of the mist.

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