Copyright, Warner Bros.
Prayer Focus
Movie Review

THE POLAR EXPRESS

Reviewed by: Michael Karounos
CONTRIBUTOR

Good
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Kids, Family
Genre:
Animation, Kids, Family
Length:
1 hr. 40 min.
Year of Release:
2004
USA Release:
______
Featuring: Tom Hanks, Chris Coppola, Eddie Deezen, Michael Jeter, Nona Gaye
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Producer: Gary Goetzman, William Teitler, Robert Zemeckis, Steve Starkey
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Copyright, Warner Bros.
Copyright, Warner Bros.
Copyright, Warner Bros.
Relevant Issues


What is the true meaning of Christmas? Answer

Christmas Quiz

Is Christmas True? Is Jesus Christ for real? Answer

Reviews of other Christmas movies


“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:

“And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:10 NIV)

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.



What is the true meaning of Christmas? Answer


Viewer Comments
Comments below:
Positive
Positive—Although this movie does not focus on Christ as the true meaning of Christmas, it does offer some great moral lessons. I would consider it a secular parable teaching its viewers virtues of friendship, loyalty, courage, and most of all faith (being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Heb. 11:1). It was visually stunning and certain to break records and win awards. It was at times very intense. I was on the edge of my chair a few times, and my four-year-old daughter held my hand pretty tight during the runaway “roller coaster” scene. I would consider it a very good movie for kids compared to what is out there right now. This movie will surely captivate the minds of young children. If your able to get past the secular/sacred mindset of protective enculturation, this movie offers a lot of Christian moral truths if your willing to talk to your kids and help them put it in proper context.
My Ratings: [Good/5]
—Matthew Skaj, age 34
PositiveTom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis have done it again, and this one may be their best. There are numerous times watching this film that I sat back in my seat and just smiled, because everything on the screen is just so beautiful. This is a film everyone should see, and more than once. Surely, this will become a holiday classic, and rightfully so. In a time when parents say there isn’t much good in Hollywood for the kids, The Polar Express is a welcome change.
My Ratings: [Excellent!/5]
Jonathan Rodriguez, age 21
Positive—Although this film was based exclusively on the “Santa” aspect of Christmas, it was a fun and heart-warming story. There were scenes that were exciting to the point of possibly being frightening, but certainly not for my 11 and 9 year old. We all enjoyed it and the special effects were excellent. The trip to the north pole was particularly thrilling. Just remember to preface your child’s viewing of the film by telling him/her that Santa is not real and this is just a fun story. Great fun.
My Ratings: [Excellent!/5]
—Jim Vanden Heuvel, age 38
Positive—It is amazing how far animation has come in the last few years. This film is a marvelous example of what animation is possible of doing. The story is so-so with few surprises in the plot but one is totally transported to another place as we’re captured by the beauty and incredible attention to detail in this film. My wife loved the music while I loved the wonderful and rich animation.
My Ratings: [Good/5]
—Ron Reames, age 57
Positive—I had the pleasure of seeing the 3D version of this movie at an IMAX theater with my 13 year old daughter. No chintzy paper glasses but comfortable Italian frames! The audio and visual effects enhanced by IMAX transforms the beautiful animation into a surreal experience. The script was truly heart warming and should become a holiday classic for many families.

The Christian parallels in the story is a great opportunity to share the true meaning of Christmas. My daughter and I give it four-thumbs up!
My Ratings: [Excellent!/5]
—John Gentile, age 45
Positive—This was a far better film than I expected it to be. I won’t give a blow-by-blow synopsis, but let me say that the graphics are intense as are some of the scenes. I had a strong feeling of God’s love for us as I watched the movie. When the conductor was holding on to the boy and girl as the train veered back and forth tears welled up in my eyes. He was determined not to let anything happen to them and I thought about how the Lord is CONSTANTLY keeping watch over us and has our best interests at heart. It’s a good holiday film. Don’t be put off by the image of Santa—even in that I was reminded of the ever present Jehovah God.
My Ratings: [Good/4½]
—Reba, age 30+
Positive—My parents and I enjoyed the movie. When we viewed it, there were mostly adults in the theater because it was a very rainy Thursday night. The film quality itself is amazing. I would like to know how it was made. About half way through this movie, I realized that there would be no nativity scene, no hearing of the precious name of Our Savior, Jesus Christ. No mention of God. Christmas would be reduced to the world’s view of a man named Santa Claus, who exists to bring children toys. But then the thought occurred to me; God can never be silenced; for His hand of creation is clearly seen in the beauty of this film. The night scenes that depict the moon glistening on the snow, that is God’s handiwork. The precious children and their amazement and wonder are also evidence of His love. Even the ticket that is lost and then found, show His sovereignty over all situations in life. After I read the main review on this Web site, I too can see a picture of the Trinity.

Do you think that Tom Hanks realizes any of this? Let’s pray that He will. I cried at the end of the movie. I thank God that He gave me parents who allowed me to enjoy the fantasy of Christmas, although secondary to the true meaning, the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I look forward to seeing this again, with our teen age son and my husband.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/5]
—Bev, age 49
Positive—I went into this movie with no expectations other than a cute children’s movie about a train ride to the North Pole. I had never read the book nor had I heard or read any reviews. I was immediately struck by many Christian parallels that I could talk to my kids about. The train ride seemed similar to our Christian walk… while things may go wrong in our eyes God always has a plan. I was surprised at how the elves were revering Santa but then it struck me that that is exactly what we will feel when we see God. And finally, the bell was an incredible image of how our faith gives us the ability to “hear” the Word and believe. I was also pleasantly surprised that my 2 ½ year old sat through the whole movie and was totally enthralled. I would highly recommend this to families of all ages.
My Ratings: [Good/5]
—Vikki Davis, age 34
Positive—I went to this movie with little expectations. I expected to find it yet another glorification of Santa Claus with little redeeming qualities outside of the possibility of excellent animation.

I was, to my delight, terribly wrong. Those who describe this movie as allegorical describe it well. I first thought that I was stretching things, but upon reflection and reviewing other’s observations, realize that this movie, whether intentional or not, does indeed have an allegorical quality. I saw belief shown as requiring faith as well as the essence of the trinity, the Christian journey with its ups and downs (contrast the serving of hot chocolate with the consequence of not having a ticket.)

In the end I found it delightful and did not want the movie to end. I was torn between being bothered at the similarities shown between Santa and God the Father, and loving the allegory that shows the love of the Father in that way. I recommend the movie’s allegorical side be used only when sure to be understood. Eight of my nine children saw it, the older ones caught the allegorical side, the littles did not and we chose not to share that at this time. To them, Santa is still something “fun” that people like to pretend about at Christmas time but we do not.
My Ratings: [Good/5]
—C. Havig, age 35
Positive—My first reaction after seeing this movie was “Wow!” I really enjoyed the special effects, the edge-of-your seat excitement, and Tom Hanks. This is sure to be a holiday classic along with “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
My Ratings: [Better than Average/5]
—Shannon H., age 23
Positive—Great movie ~ when can I buy it for my collection?
My Ratings: [Excellent/5]
—Bonnie, age 41
Positive—We took our 3 year old to this as her first movie. She loved it! However, she got motion sickness… After going home and cleaning up, she asked her daddy to take her back. He did and she watched all of the movie (with Daddy covering her eyes in the “roller coaster” scenes) and thought it was awesome. We are very careful with what we allow her to watch and nothing in this movie bothered her. She keeps asking to go again. So, I believe this movie is great for all ages. Our entire family thoroughly enjoyed it!
My Ratings: [Good/5]
—Karen Q., age 41
Negative
Negative—I took my third grader to see this movie on a class trip. I was very happy I was able to go since there were so many frightening parts in it. The entire book was covered, but the additions were mostly terrifying to my daughter. She spent most of the movie in my lap with her head buried. Most movies have an evil character; this one did not, but it had a “ghost” which I found objectionable. I would not recommend this movie to a child who is sensitive or easily scared.
My Ratings: [Good/5]
—Callee Stauffer, age 37
Negative—I was excited going in, troubled coming out. Santa’s imagery almost gave the impression he was God. Celebrated and exalted above all else. Something that did not sit well with me. The Christian parallels were there, just not in a way a young child could grasp. After the visual pictures experienced in the movie it may take more than a bible story or two to overcome such powerful imagery.
My Ratings: [Average/5]
—Blaine Adamson, age 32
Negative—I took my 3 year old to this movie. Most of the setting was dark and scary for him. It does have a couple of scenes that are questionable. I didn’t like the concept of the children getting on a train that takes them away from home in the middle of the night. I also didn’t like the portrayal of Santa. Not a bad movie for the older kids that you can explain things to, but I wouldn’t take the younger ones.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/3]
—Melissa Thomas, age 31
Negative—A generally “okay” movie, but disturbing in teaching that belief is all that’s needed—irregardless of its object. “No matter where the train is going—it just matters that you get on.” Christianity teaches more than belief, Jesus Christ as the object of our faith, and apart from Him, there is no hope! That’s most disturbing in a film centered around Christmas.
My Ratings: [Good/4½]
—Barb R., age 42
Negative—This was not the sweet children’s movie that I had expected. There were many frightfully realistic action scenes in which the main character narrowly escaped death while jumping between moving train cars, running on top of the train, and walking on a narrow trestle over a deep chasm. The train also derailed and nearly sank into an icy lake. My 5 year old had her head buried in my shoulder for much of this time and kept asking, “When will this part be over?” and “Will the boy fall?” I was also disturbed by the encounter with the menacing hobo ghost. The whole idea of having a scary ghost in a movie for young children seemed out of place to me. Much of the film seemed to have a rather dark quality. Although the technical effects were marvelous and the computer generated characters seemed almost real the plot failed to really hold our attention.

I completely missed the Christian allegory until I read the above review after seeing the movie. When I explained it to my 9 year old son he said, “I don’t think Santa Clause makes a good symbol for God and the train conductor was too mean to be Jesus.” I agree with him. I must say, though, that he thought the intense action was cool and that some of the characters were funny. By the end of the movie my 5 and 6 year old girls were enjoying the show as well. Overall, the children liked it but I was unimpressed by the lack of a more concise story line and I thought the Christian allegory was too obscured to be very meaningful for a young child.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/4½]
—Annie Venable, age 37
Negative—A generally “okay” movie, but disturbing in teaching that belief is all that’s needed—irregardless of its object. “No matter where the train is going—it just matters that you get on.” Christianity teaches more than belief, Jesus Christ as the object of our faith, and apart from Him, there is no hope! That’s most disturbing in a film centered around Christmas.
My Ratings: [Good/4½]
—Barb R., age 42
Negative—I thought the computer animated people were creepy looking. I thought the idea of kids leaving with a stranger in the middle of the night sent a bad message. I didn’t like the ghost. The music playing in the abandoned city was haunting and erie. Although I enjoyed much of the movie, like the wolves and eagle scene, there were too many creepy elements. Too scary for young children.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/4]
—Nancy Tirak, age 42
Negative—I took my girls to see this movie 11 and 6 year old’s. we feel the same as all the other reviews. It was to dark and scary.
My Ratings: [Average/1]
—Mary C., age 36
Negative—First off… this had nothing objectionable or inappropriate in it. I just did not like it at all. It may be part of the whole hype this movie got from friends so I was expecting something “out of this world” and then was disappointed.

The graphics are amazing and without flaw. What artistry! I was very impressed; in fact at a glance I thought it was a regular movie and not animated.

I found parts of the story disturbing; i.e., the ghost on the roof; it was a creepy kind of movie; I don’t know how to explain it; it was like when the Holy Spirit nudges you and tells you something isn’t quite right; the overall hue of darkness and “unknown” prevailed from beginning to end and lastly the worship and homage paid to Santa at the North Pole when he appeared. It bothered me to see him so literally worshipped. No one mentioned Jesus, the real reason for the holiday at all! It is purely secular, down to the last jingle. Will I buy it? Absolutely not. One other thing, I took our 4 yr old to see it and we don’t do santa just Jesus at Christmas—since we saw this movie that’s all she talked about was Santa. I found it confused her about what we had raised her to believe. We have 5 children, and it is not my plan for any of the others to see it… regardless of age. This is YET another lesson to me to preview any movie before letting my children see it… when will I ever learn?
My Ratings: [Good/2]
—Claire Guthrie, age 35
Neutral
Neutral—My family went to this movie last night. We hardly ever go to the theater. We love the book, the movie is based on. So, we were looking forward to the movie. I was a little disappointed. I am a bit of a purest, but knew they would need “filler” action to make a move from this book. ALL of the quotes from the book are used, but not the implied quotes, which I think are a big part of the story.

The graphics and animation are AMAZING, but somewhat dark at times. My 12 year old son said “I think a kid 5 and under would get scared at some parts of the movie, especially the ‘doll scene’.” I thought that was very observant. As stated above, if you have a sensitive child, there are a fair amount of scary moments.
If you have not read the book, you will probably enjoy the movie more than I did.
My Ratings: [Good/4]
—Deanna, age 39
Neutral—Christians should be careful about giving this movie too much praise. It is consciously secular—deliberately and thoroughly stripping away all original meaning of Christmas. What’s left is the promotion of Christmas as a day of secular warm fuzzies.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/3]
—Kalos Orisate, age 51
Neutral—I was disappointed overall, I was hoping for one of those really special, all time greats. The special effects are creative. While I liked the idea of the Hobo figure, I thought they made him too creepy at times. He scared my 3 year old, who was upset through most of the film anyway by the “one close call after another” theme. My older children thought it was fun, but as for getting the Christian message (that yes, you can find if you analyze it enough), for them it was lost to the thrill. The theme of friendship was the most clear message portrayed through the little boy from the “other side” of the tracks. They could have done so much more with the Hobo and I wish they would have left out the doll scene, as well as the rock and roll bit with the elves at the end. If you are expecting a secular Christmas show, then you’ll probably enjoy this for a one time view on the big screen.
My Ratings: [Good/3½]
—Mrs. W. Banaszak, age 37
Neutral—This film focused ENTIRELY on the secular, false side of Christmas. In the end Santa said that all you need to do is believe. After we left I asked my five year old son, “Now Michael, you know what Christmas really is don’t you?” To which he replied, “YA, it is Santa’s birthday!” We had to have a long talk after this movie. That really bugged me. It was so magical and fantastic that it will mislead many. Be ready.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/5]
—Matt, age 38
Comments from young people
Positive—Once in a while, Hollywood DOES come out with a good movie or two. And Polar Express is one of them! I just saw it at the theater right now, and I was captivated by the movie! The scenes were very thrilling, and it kept me at the edge of my seat the whole time. The animation was wonderfully done… several times it looked so good I thought the characters looked real instead of computerized! This is a wonderful movie for the whole family… sure to become a classic! There is no cussing or inappropriate content. The only things in this movie that I found offensive was that Christmas was portrayed more of a holiday to celebrate Santa Claus instead of Jesus. And the “ghost” may offend some parents, but I was ok with it. The producers didn’t make a big deal out of it. Anyway, to wrap this up, this is a terrific movie! Just think twice before taking children 7 and under. There’s a lot of scenes that may frighten them. But kids 8 and up should be fine
My Ratings: [Excellent/5]
—Sarah, age 14
Positive—I think that this movie was a great movie. It has a moral to it, to never give up. I would also recommend this movie for ages 5+. It is a great story, but the fact it has a ghost it might scare small children.
My Ratings: [Good/4½]
—Kelsee, age 12
Positive—This movie was great!!!… It tells people that “seeing is not always believing.” because even if we can’t see Jesus, we still should believe in Jesus.
My Ratings: [Excellent/5]
—Kimi, age 10
Neutral—This movie was alright. I got a little bored with it in some parts though. Some of it sort of reminded me of the Spy Kids movies. All kids would be alright seeing it. Some teens and preteens might get bored with it though.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/3½]
—Carolyn, age 11
Positive—I saw this movie with my brother and our friend. We are all Christians, and we all liked it although we thought it was more of a kid’s movie (are ages range from 12 to about 42). It wasn’t a Christian Christmas movie, but how many big screen Christmas movies are? Your kids will probably like it, but if your the kind of person that doesn’t let their kids watch anything even remotely “scary” or “violent” then you probably wouldn’t let them see this great family/children movie.
My Ratings: [Good/4½]
—Caleb, age 14
Positive—This movie does not explore the true meaning of Christmas, but that wasn’t expected. Knowing this you can go to this movie and have a wonderful time. It is an amazing movie that will probably become a Christmas classic. The animation is incredible, and the story is a classic. I recommend this movie.
My Ratings: [Good/5]
—Adam, age 14
Neutral—…Part of me found it charming, the story seemed great. On the other hand it was a bit disappointing. The elves seemed a little mean, as did Santa. Seeing Tom Hanks play all those parts was irritating. He played almost every man in the film. I surprised he didn’t play the elves! The visual parts was neat at times, especially with the humans. However, sometimes it just looked like a computer game. Overall, it was ok Not my favorite Christmas film, but I don’t hate it.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/4]
—Adison, age 15
Movie Critics
…As thoroughly secular Christmas stories go, The Polar Express has a tender heart and enough visual tricks to wow even adults…
—Bob Smithouser, Plugged In
…Transforms Christmas into Clausmas…
—Annabelle Robertson, Crosswalk
…the film is not sheer wizardry; it also has heart…
—Duane Byrge, Hollywood Reporter
…melds vivid imagination, whimsy with real sentiment… It’s as if Norman Rockwell suddenly had been transformed into the digital age.
—Robert Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News
…rare treat… superbly done and contains positive moral lessons for children of all ages…
—Tom Snyder, Movieguide