THE POLAR EXPRESS
Reviewed by: Michael Karounos
Animation, Kids, Family
1 hr. 40 min.
Year of Release:
“Journey Beyond Your Imagination”
“The Polar Express” is a classic children’s story written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg and translated to the big screen with an equally original vision by Robert Zemeckis who directed the movie and co-wrote the screenplay.
Zemeckis adds many original details to the story about a boy who lacks the faith to believe in Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve the parents remark how much the sleeping boy has grown and that it will soon be the “end of the magic” of childhood. The boy hears and wonders at this, even as a magical train stops outside his house. The conductor tells him that their destination is the North Pole, and he gets in a car with other children who are also in their pajamas.
The visuals are luscious and richly-textured. Zemeckis colors the story with the same Baroque surrealism of the book, using a shadowy, Ruebens-like palette. The atmosphere is similar to that in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—darkly mysterious and faintly menacing. Fat snowflakes fall throughout the night-time journey as the train passes over high mountains, across an icy desert, and through gloomy, moon-lit forests filled with hungry wolves.
Like many journeys, this one is allegorical. The children learn what their peculiar faults are and how they must overcome them. In this sense, it bears a strong likeness to the “Wizard of Oz” in that it has four characters sharing a journey to a magic city where they receive the knowledge about themselves they were lacking. Thematically, it is even more similar to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress because of the underlying spiritual theme of belief.
The premise of the movie is that as one grows old one loses one’s ability to hear the ringing of a bell from Santa’s sleigh. This belief in Santa, unlike a Christian’s belief in God, is at first based on the act of seeing. During the journey the Hobo tells the boy that “Seeing is believing.” When they arrive at the North Pole the boy is saddened that he cannot hear the bells on Santa’s sleigh and that he cannot see Santa through the crowd of elves. In desperation, he repeats to himself “I believe, I believe,” and in that moment, as if in answer to a prayer, Santa appears at his side. Afterwards, the conductor tells him that “Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things are those you can’t see.”
At this point the movie transcends the book’s simple story and may remind the Christian viewer that “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1 NIV). The boy believed before he saw Santa, in much the same way that Hebrews further describes: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 NIV). Having earnestly sought and believed first, the boy receives the reward of the bell, which the Conductor said was “the wonderful spirit of Christmas.” Thus, the bell is an emblem of belief, it is the “spirit” of Christmas, and it is the reward that the boy receives from Santa, otherwise described as the “big guy.”
The triangulation of meanings in the bell is echoed by the trinitarian aspect of the boy’s guides. First, the Hobo is a “ghost” who asks the boy if he believes in ghosts. This explains his earlier statement that “Seeing is believing.” If you see a ghost, it must exist, right? Second, it is the Conductor who mediates the boy’s journey from the reality of his unbelieving life to the life of faith in the city of lights where Santa dwells. And third, it is Santa who dispenses his rewards to every boy and girl who believes in him.
Thus, Santa is the Father figure who rewards belief, the ghost is the Holy Ghost who saves the boy’s life, and the Conductor is the Christ-like figure through whom alone the children can go to Santa’s city. Seen in such a light, the movie is a striking Christian allegory of seeking God, finding faith, and earning redemption as a reward.
We also learn that not everyone retains the faith of a child as they grow older and this is an important lesson for children to be taught. However, the boy does retain his faith, and small children should be prepared in advance by their parents to see a Christmas story containing characters whose function and relationship to one another is much like the function of the Trinity in the life of a Christian. By instructing children how the movie functions as an allegory, parents will have a useful object lesson for teaching their children about the allegories in the Bible, such as the sower and the seeds and the prodigal son.
Finally, the message of childhood as possessing a special innocence is famously illustrated by Jesus’ own words when he says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 NIV). Likewise, the movie and the book may remind us as Christians that unless we retain a child-like innocence we will never hear the “spirit” of Christmas which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is through Jesus alone that we receive the Holy Spirit, and it is through His “work” that we are transported on the journey of life to “the city of the Great King” (Matthew 5:35 NIV).
In the book, the North Pole is a “huge city standing alone at the top of the world.” Just as the boy approached the magical city, conveyed there by the ghost and the conductor, so too will we approach the New Jerusalem, conveyed by our own “ghost” and Conductor:
The movie contains nothing objectionable and is suitable for every age group. Very small children will be entranced by the beautiful visuals of the story, older children will be struck by the magic of a transforming faith, and adults will be gratified by an unusual story which seems so strongly to convey the message of the gospel. The Christian symbols will not be evident to non-believers, but they may give pleasure to believers. Christians of every age will hear the question asked of the little boy—“Someone saved you?”—and will answer in their hearts: “Yes. Jesus saved me,” in words sweet as the ringing of a silver bell.
If you have not read the book, you will probably enjoy the movie more than I did.
—Deanna, age 39