Oh, The Polar Express, shall I compare thee to a snowy Christmas Eve?
When asked “what is your favorite Christmas movie?” many people may respond with such films as A Christmas Story, Home Alone, A Miracle on 34th Street, or even a true classic, Elf. My favorite Christmas movie is a little, animated film that released in 2004 based off a children’s book of the same name, The Polar Express.
This movie features Tom Hanks as the voice for many of the characters, including both the main hero boy and the conductor. The premise of the story is a young boy has reached the age where he is questioning whether Santa Claus exists, and therefore, Christmas is losing its magic. There is a scene that shows the main hero boy sifting through articles he has gathered showing various reasons that Santa is not real and he also reads an encyclopedia article that states the North Pole is devoid of life. On Christmas Eve, a steam engine train pulls up in front of the boy’s house to whisk him off to the North Pole. The conductor tells the boy that he is in a crucial year, “no photo with Santa, no letter to the North Pole, tried to convince your sister Santa isn’t real.” The boy is clearly skeptical but ultimately decides to board the train.
Once on the train, he is greeted by other children, including a young girl and a loud-mouth know-it-all boy. The train makes one more stop at a small, almost dilapidated house for a young boy who seems to come from a poor background. At first, the boy does not want to board the train, but as the train begins pulling away he changes his mind and attempts to race after the train. The main boy sees this and calls for someone to stop the train so that the boy may board, but his cries go ignored. So, he decides to pull the emergency brake causing the train to stop and allowing the boy to board.
This action presents one of the major themes in the movie, and one of the reasons why it is my favorite Christmas movie: be kind to others. There are many scenes throughout the movie that show characters demonstrating kindness to others. The main hero girl saves a cup of hot chocolate for the less fortunate boy because he has decided to sit alone in a separate rail car when she goes to deliver the chocolate to the boy she forgets her ticket and our hero decides to chase after her to give her the ticket. He loses the ticket and fearing that his new friend will be thrown from the train he goes on an epic quest to retrieve the ticket, which involves him climbing to the roof of a moving train.
The scenes involving the ticket are some of the most beautiful scenes in the movie. When the boy first loses the ticket, we see it flying through the air and landing on the snowy landscape nearby. It is kicked up into the breeze by a pack of wolves running through the snow-covered hills. It is then snatched by a bird, carried to its offspring, and finally thrown down a hill where it catches back up with the train. These scenes demonstrate the quality of animation that went into creating this movie.
While on the roof of the train, the boy meets a mysterious hobo that has somehow managed to start and maintain a campfire on top of a moving train that is traveling through blizzard-like conditions. This character, also voiced by the marvelous Tom Hanks, fuels some of the boy’s skepticism by mocking Santa Claus, asking the boy if everything he is currently experiencing is just a dream, and stating that true belief comes from seeing. The boy explains that he needs to return the ticket to the girl and so the hobo takes him on a thrilling, skiing trip down the snow-covered roof of the train.
In the engine cab of the train the boy is reunited with the girl and through a series of unfortunate events, the train winds up on an ice-covered lake. In a scene that I have dubbed “too fast, too furious train” the engineers and conductor do some fancy steering to guide the train back to the tracks as the ice is collapsing beneath them. I love this scene, as well as the skiing scene because it gives the movie heart-pounding action that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat.
After the train is successfully back on solid ground it finally reaches its magical destination: The North Pole. Here again, the viewer is greeted with beautiful animation that truly makes this movie feel magical. We also see another instance of kindness between the characters. The lonely boy decides that he does not want to leave the train to meet Santa Claus, but our hero boy and hero girl stay back to try to convince him to come with the rest of the group. After a couple mishaps, the trio is careening down the tracks in a runaway rail car. Our hero girl takes the lead in getting the trio safely back to the rest of the group. She and the lonely boy follow the sound of sleigh bells to lead them through the elf’s workshop back to the center square where the festivities are happening. Our main hero boy is again doubtful that they are going the correct direction because he is unable to hear the sound of the bells.
After ending up in Santa’s massive gift bag and some fancy acrobatics by the elves, the three are reunited with the rest of the children in time to see the main event: Santa Claus. The elves bring out the reindeer and the sleigh bells that adorn them, but again, our hero boy hears nothing as the elves jingle the bells. As Santa finally steps out into the spotlight, the boy is unable to catch a good glimpse of him. Between not being able to hear the bells and not being able to get a good look at Santa, he begins to panic. A bell from the sleigh flies off and lands in front of the boy, but when he holds it to his ear it does not make a sound. Here we see the boy having almost an existential crisis as he is torn between what he knows to be true based off of science and what he is currently witnessing. He finally admits that he believes and accepts the magic that is happening all around him. At this admission, he is finally able to hear the sound of the bell and Santa greets him face to face. He is then chosen to receive the first gift of Christmas. What he truly asks for is a mystery because he whispers it to Santa, but I like to believe that he asks to never lose sight of the magic of Christmas again. The physical gift he receives is the bell that fell from the sleigh. Santa also gives the boy a spirited piece of advice saying, “the true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart”.
Back on the train, the children are all gathered around the boy begging him to take out the bell so that they can hear it, but as he reaches into the pocket of his robe he realizes that the bell fell out of a hole in the pocket. Despair ripples through the children, but they quickly rebound with that classic kindness and rally to find the bell. Before they can begin their quest, the train pulls away and they are resigned back to pity for the boy who lost the first gift of Christmas.
As the train begins making stops to return kids to their homes we are again presented with a theme of the movie: friendship. The conductor had previously told the trio that there is no greater gift than friendship. At the end of the movie, we see that the lonely boy is no longer lonely, as he has made two very good friends.
The final scenes of the movie show the main boy waking up on Christmas morning and being unsure of what he experienced was all just a dream. We see he and his sister opening up their presents, including a small, mysterious present under the tree addressed to our hero. The box contains none other than the bell that he had received from Santa and had clumsily dropped. As he rings the bell, only he and his sister are able to hear the lovely sound. His parents make comments about how the bell is broken because they are unable to hear the sound. The movie closes with a final narration from the boy as an adult reflecting on the bell. He states that as he continued to grow up, his friends, and even his sister, eventually could not hear the sound of the bell, but he is still able to hear the sound.
The theme of belief is, in my opinion, the biggest theme throughout this movie. Whether that is the belief in the kindness of others, belief in your friends during a time of need, or belief in the magic of Christmas. This movie is my favorite holiday movie because I believe that it truly captures the spirit of Christmas. Christmas is more than just pretty decorations and gifts, but also finding time to show kindness to those around you and reflecting on the most important things in your life. There are so many different things to take away from this movie that I find myself discovering something new each time I watch it. At the core, this is a movie for children, and I saw it first as a child, but even as an adult the movie inspires awe and wonder in me that makes me excited for Christmas. It makes me believe in the magic of Christmas and even Santa Claus again. I am not sure I could ever truly explain my pure love for this movie because there is just so much to take from the narrative, but as I believe Walt Whitman would say if he saw this movie, “this movie contains multitudes”.