Revisiting Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express
For those poor souls unfortunate enough not to have witnessed – or, more truly, experienced – Zemeckis’ The Polar Express, it’s a classic tale about the Christmas story. No, not Jesus, the other one. Reindeer, elves, stockings and all that. Admittedly, the Christmas theme does make The Polar Express pretty redundant during the summer, but in those dark, cold weeks from mid-November to maybe the start of January, there are few movies more captivating. After all, what’s more Christmassy than a dreamlike train ride up to the North Pole to visit ole’ Saint Nick or, as we know him today, Santa Claus? And like any train ride, it’s a journey. A magical, enchanting journey.
“Well, you comin?”
The words first spoken by the brash conductor to our nameless protagonist (credited only as ‘Hero Boy’) as The Polar Express parks up outside his house in the dead of night one Christmas Eve. After awkwardly entering into the compartments not quite knowing what he’s doing there, he soon makes some similar-aged friends who are all fairly believable. There’s the shy, reclusive one (Billy); the friendly, outgoing one (‘Hero Girl’); the annoying know-it-all; and the middle-of-the-road sort of kid who is our protagonist. It’s all very familiar, each one perhaps reminding us of someone from our childhood (or, just as probably, our adulthood). They’re also slightly creepy in an uncanny valley sort of way – the turn of phrase used to describe non-human objects or beings which look akin to human beings whilst also looking fairly different.
“Do not lose your ticket”
Also, the words uttered to Hero Boy by The Polar Express’s train conductor. Overbearing yet sympathetic, he’s constantly stressing about keeping the train on time for the stop at the North Pole, and is voiced by none other than Tom Hanks, who also plays Hero Boy and his father, as well as Santa Claus and Hobo, who we’ll get to shortly. He certainly had his work cut out for him, not least because he also acted out the parts through motion capture.
The conductor also stresses about the tickets used to board and remain on The Polar Express. They’re faintly supernatural, seeming to have more power than the ones dished out by Willy Wonka, because straight after Hero Girl loses hers, the conductor, seemingly as punishment, guides her down to the front of the train for the menial task of taking over the controls. He also isn’t one for health and safety protocol, as he takes there via the snow-covered and very dangerous train roof.
Yes, thick and warm. At least, that’s how I hope they serve it on The Polar Express, because quarter-way through the conductor breaks into song as a team of French-style waiters storm into the compartment and serve everyone refreshments in the form of that ancient chocolate beverage we all know and love. There are one or two other sing-song scenes but, unlike several of the kids on board the train, this one definitely doesn’t feel like baggage.
Besides overly hot beverages, there’s also a pleasant assortment of other things on offer in The Polar Express that can’t help but make us think of winter and Christmastime. There’s snow, reindeer, wolves (at least from a distance), skis, large daunting ice fields and of course, the man himself – Father Christmas. Being a holiday that most of us grew up with, The Polar Express touches close to the heart. Hostage is also a good movie, but how many of us have been in a real-life kidnapping situation?
“A Scrooge, Ebeneezer Scrooge!”
By far the most interesting character in The Polar Express is the mysterious ‘Hobo’ who appears to live or at least ride regularly on top of the train, who may or may not be a ghost and who may or may not be a figment of Hero Boy’s imagination. There are all sorts of fan theories surrounding him (as well as other aspects of the film), speculating whether he might represent Jesus or the Holy Spirit in opposition to the false god of heavily-commercialized Santa Claus. The simplest explanation is that he merely represents the doubts that everyone has within themselves about the reality and power of Christmas.
Mysterious and slippery, his allegiance is far from certain, but he does save the protagonist on more than one occasion. Otherwise, he’s really there to test Hero Boy’s faith and by proxy the audience’s as well. He can be heard dissing Santa Claus, the “big man”, and at one point is seen lowering a puppet of Ebeneezer Scrooge in Hero Boy’s face. Near the end, the audience gets a last shot of him waving to Hero Boy outside his house from the roof of The Polar Express, before fading into thin air.
“You don’t believe!”
A little before that, however, The Polar Express finally reaches the North Pole and after getting briefly lost in the elf-made streets and toy factories, Hero Boy and his friends eventually get to meet Santa Claus in the town square where they each receive gifts. His is a bell from one of Santa’s reindeer, which he can only hear ring once he finds it within himself to believe in Christmas.
On Christmas morning, after seemingly losing that bell, he receives a letter from Santa with it inside. To Hero Boy, for whom the power of Christmas is now very real, the bell rings true and he still hears it make a sound. But his parents, lacking belief, can’t, which sums up pretty well what The Polar Express has to offer. For children, it helps keep the ever-present and very real spirit of Christmas alive. For adults, to whom the magic of Christmas has long since dissipated, it puts a little of that magic back in. One and a half hours worth, at least.