My Problem With "The Polar Express"
The Polar Express is a Christmas movie that I always felt no one else saw but me. Living in Portugal, there were some animated movies that were as successful here as in the US, mostly Disney and Pixar movies, but when it came to other studios, sometimes the movies were hits, sometimes not. The Polar Express was the latter. I never heard of anyone, among my friends and family, who saw this movie, either when it came out or in the years afterwards. I didn't even see it when it came out. I got it on DVD for Christmas from a distant relative.
I saw it alone and I really, really liked it. I thought it was a fun idea, the characters worked for me, the setpieces were super exciting, and me being at an age when I no longer believed in Santa Claus, the movie was able to transmit the value of belief and what it can do for people in a very comprehensible, compassionate and thought-provoking way. I think I like it more and more as time goes on in fact.
For those of you who haven't seen it, I'll provide a quick synopsis of the plot. On Christmas Eve, a young boy has become skeptical of the existence of Santa Claus. He goes to bed and can't sleep, plagued by his doubt over whether Santa is out there delivering presents. He's woken up by a massive train that stops just outside his house. Apparently, no one can perceive the train but him.
He ventures outside and meets the train's conductor (voiced by Tom Hanks). He tells him that the train is called the Polar Express and is on is way to the North Pole. The boy boards the train and goes through many tribulations during the journey, making friends with the other children on the train, who are the only passengers. He befriends a driven cheerful girl and a shy boy from a poor neighbourhood. Both of them believe in the existence of Santa, while our protagonist remains unsure throughout the journey.
When they finally reach the North Pole, they all witness the loading of gifts to all households in the world onto Santa's sleigh, and as they are waiting on the main square of Santa's village with thousands of elves, a pair of doors opens and Santa comes out. Everyone appears to see him except for the young boy, who can't see him through the crowd. At that moment, a small bell becomes loose from Santa's sleigh and lands at the boy's feet.
He picks it up, closes his eyes and forces himself to finally believe. When he opens his eyes, Santa is standing right behind him. Santa selects the boy to receive the first Christmas gift, and the boy asks for the bell, which Santa gifts him. After that, Santa leaves to deliver presents all over the world and the train returns the children home, with the young boy showing his bell to this parents the next morning. However they aren't able to hear it ring, whereas the boy and his younger sister Sarah can both hear it. The film ends with a narration from an older version of the boy saying that the bell only rings for those who believe in Santa, and as he grew up, his friends and his sister all stopped hearing it, except for him.
The Hobo and the Ending
Ultimately, it is a pretty sweet story. Its message seems to be about the value of a child's ability to be open to what's possible, and about how belief can be a priceless source of joy and hope to those who feel it. This latter point is driven home with the character of the shy poor boy, who despite clearly not experiencing a lot of Christmas cheer around the holidays, still believes in the idea of Santa and how he brings joy to children.
But as the title of this article suggests, I've always had a problem with the story. It doesn't ruin the movie or the message, it's just a reflection of my own interpretation of the movie and its message. And that problem lies with the film's ending. The personal journey of the young boy is all about belief. The character of the Hobo on top of the train is an excellent reflection of the boy's own skepticism and of how he must reject his negative outlook. The Hobo asks why the boy wants to see Santa and the boy replies, "Because I want to believe", at which point the Hobo shoots back at him, "Seeing is believing".
It is only at the end of the movie that the boy finally rejects the Hobo's point. When he is unable to see Santa in the square, he forces himself to believe, not having seen Santa, and when he finally believes, he can hear the bell, and Santa is revealed to him. That's the end of his journey. The crucial part is that he believes before seeing Santa, and hears the bell before seeing Santa. If there was no act of belief and he just saw Santa and was proven wrong, the message of the movie would fall flat.
My gripe with the story is that this leap of faith from the boy lasts a few short moments, because after he sees Santa, his blind belief ceases to be blind. We have every reason to think that the boy will hear the bell forever, and it has nothing to do with belief. Because well, he saw Santa, he talked to him, how could he not believe in him? The value of blind belief has been proven, but it must be reflected in other characters besides the children on the train to be fully confirmed. And it isn't.
If you see where I'm going with this you'll understand that my main problem with this movie is Sarah, the boy's sister. At the beginning of the movie she is the counterpart to the boy's skepticism. She believes in Santa and is mad at him for mocking her belief. She does not go on the Polar Express and by the end, she too can hear the bell as a reflection of her steadfast belief in Santa and magic. However the closing narration states that she too stopped listening to it at some point, as did all the boy's friends.
I believe this actually goes against the movie's message. The whole movie and the climax is about believing without definitive proof, and the value in keeping one's mind and heart open to wonderful things beyond our own perception. But by the end, the only characters who still believe, are the characters who have no reason not to believe. The validation of the movie's message would have ocurred if Sarah had never stopped believing. It would have been a confirmation of how it is possible and good to maintain a childlike openness even in older ages.
But instead, the movie makes the argument that as we grow up, skepticism claims us all and there is no room for belief in wonder and magic in adulthood. Ultimately, the movie validates the Hobo's point. By having the character who literally saw Santa be the only person who believes in him, the story confirms that indeed "Seeing is believing". Maybe it's intentional, but I think that for a kid's movie, it's a pretty bleak moral, and quite uninspiring.
So those were my quick thoughts on The Polar Express. What are yours? Have you seen the film? How did you interpret the ending? Leave comments down below and consider checking out my other articles. As always, thank you for reading.