Director: Robert Zemeckis, 2004.
Every so often a Christmas movie is released that instantly catapults to the status of “classic.” One of my favorites in recent years is The Polar Express. Christmas classics project a common theme. They remind us again of the true meaning of the holiday season, typically a main character highlighting how friends and family are more important than status and stuff. Whether it is A Christmas Carol, Christmas with the Kranks, or Christmas Vacation, these movies send the message that people are what matter most. Giving is more important than getting. Beyond just emphasizing the true meaning of the season, The Polar Express explores what we should truly believe in.
The Polar Express opens with a boy lying in bed wrestling with the question of whether Santa is real. He wants to believe but it seems that the evidence points against it. He wants to hear the bells of Santa’s sleigh, but he’s afraid he won’t hear them. He starts to think that maybe there is no Santa. He reaches for a magazine cover revealing a boy who has learned that Santa is not real; the disappointment on the boy's face is unmistakable. He consults his encyclopedia to discover that the North Pole is devoid of life. He overhears his parents’ whisper that these days are almost over and that will be the end of the magic. The evidence mounts against belief.
But then he is given a unique opportunity to find out for certain whether Santa Claus is real. A large locomotive train appears in front of his house offering to take him to the North Pole to meet Claus himself. The conductor of the train notes that the boy didn’t have his picture taken with Santa that year and it was his sister, not him, who set out the milk and cookies. The conductor then tells the boy that this is his “crucial year.” His need to know overcomes his hesitations and he boards the train.
While on the train the conductor gives the boy a ticket with the letters B and E punched out. On the ride he encounters a hobo. They begin to discuss the existence of Santa. The boy states that he wants to believe but, as the hobo points out, is afraid he might be wrong; the truth may be that Santa is not real and what would Christmas be without Santa? The hobo sympathizes with the boy’s dilemma and says to him, “Seeing is believing, am I right?” If he sees then he will believe.
During the train ride the boy speaks with the conductor who tells a story of being rescued from falling off the train by someone or “something” unseen. In contrast to the hobo, the conductor points out that sometimes “the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.” For our hero, the dilemma is clearly presented: will he believe even if he can’t see?
Next, the boy finds himself in the car of the train. The hobo controls a puppet who says to the boy, “you are just like me” in that “you are a doubter; you don’t believe.” The puppet serves as a mirror for the boy to show him his true self in hopes that he won’t like what he sees. Stated in terms of the moral premise, doubting leads to missing the true joy but believing leads to experiencing this joy.
Finally, arriving at the North Pole, the children get to join the elves in witnessing Santa emerge and begin his delivery of presents. First the reindeer are brought out with sleigh bells attached. However, our hero can’t hear the bells or see Santa. Then one bell flies through the air and falls silently before him. He picks it up and stares at it. After a long pause he confesses, “I believe,” and shaking the bell he hears it ring. He then hears the reindeers' sleigh bells. His hope has finally come true.
It makes sense that the boy would want one of the bells for a Christmas present to remind him that Santa was real. Giving him the bell, Santa explains that he and the bell are simply symbols of the spirit of Christmas. The true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart. When the boy returns to the train the conductor completes punching the letters on his ticket to spell: BELIEVE.
On a child’s level, The Polar Express is about the journey to discover whether Santa is real. On an adult level, it is about knowing if the spirit of Christmas (which Santa represents) is real. The answer is the same for both: sometimes “seeing is believing” and “sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.” In short: you just have to BELIEVE.
Of course, the message of The Polar Express is not new by any means. When people began to exclaim that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, one of Jesus’ disciples simply refused to believe. In fact, he said that unless he could see Jesus he would not believe. One day, Jesus appeared to him so that he could see and immediately the disciple believed. Jesus went on to tell him that he believed because he has seen but “even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.” (John 20:29 The Message) Also, years later, the Apostle Peter wrote to fellow believers, “though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8)
Copyright ©2008, Ryan Blue