I discovered the book The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg during my time in seminary. I loved the wonderful pictures and the fabulous story about this boy who meets Santa Claus. In fact, I liked it so much I used it as a sermon illustration about believing when I had to preach but not during the 12 Days of Christmas. I used it on the first Sunday after Easter, often called “Low Sunday” by those in the know because church attendance is dismal. We always read the story of”doubting Thomas” and associate clergy —or seminarians in my case—get to preach.
So with this history in mind, I really looked forward to finally seeing this animated film of the story released in 2004. (Our son was born that December when it first came out, so there was no way we were going to see it in the theater.) Tom Hanks give voice to nearly all the major characters—the boy as an adult, the train conductor (who looks a bit like him), the Father (ditto), the Hobo, Scrooge and Santa himself.
Before I get to the plot, I have to say this: I found the animation jarring from time to time as the characters appeared a tad too stiff. Not quite real, and certainly not to the level of many animated films today (nor at that time). I never really got fully immersed into the film because of this, even though I really love most animated movies.
As is almost always true, the book is better than the movie. In this version the boy hero is not a believer in Santa Claus. He nearly doesn’t board the Polar Express (my daughter watching with me said, “Do you think he’ll get on?” “If not, it’ll be a short movie,” I replied). When he gets on, he shows kindness, especially to a girl who boarded before him, and especially to a boy named Billy who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. The protagonist pulls the emergency stop mechanism so Billy, who is also wavering in his own belief of Santa, can board.
Billy goes off on his own to a different part of the train, choosing not to sit with the other children already on the Express. After refreshments are served, the hero girl brings him a cup of hot chocolate. As the boy of the story comes to them, he hears Billy begin singing a song including the line, “I guess that Santa’s busy / Cause he’s never come around, I think of him / When Christmas comes to town.” Billy appears to be a very interesting character and so much more could have been developed with him.
There’s a lot of action in the middle of the movie that adds little — if you make a 100 minute film out of a picture book you need to do something, but the ghost hobo created too much confusion. And while it plays out exactly like the book—the boy eventually gets the first gift of Christmas—my kids shouted out that Billy should have gotten it instead since he certainly was poorer. At one point the Big Man himself stops in front of Billy to chat. Billy mentions meeting new friends on the Express and Santa replies that friendship is one of the best gifts of all. But Billy could have actually used a couple of real gifts in addition to friendship (although we do see him get his gift from Santa when he arrives back at his house).
There is certainly materialism present in this film—especially from a “know-it-all” kid on board—but the hero boy and the girl and Billy seem to get the real meaning of Christmas. The hero girl reminded all of the children that Christmas is about giving and spending times with friends and family (and then gifts).
Our hero does end up believing in Santa, that is the theme of the movie after all. But it lacks a little something on the true meaning of Christmas—peace for all and sharing God’s gifts with those in need. So I give it:
It could have been so much more meaningful, but an opportunity was lost. We may see this film again, but it won’t be on the top of our Christmas Movie pile in the years to come.
Next Film in the Queue: Joyeux Noël.