Polar Express and the Limits of Belief

Holiday Christmas Train

Years ago, when first I tried to watch the 2004 Robert Zemeckis film Polar Express, I found the visual effects so bizarre that couldn’t sit through the film. But last year my young son watched the film on an Imax screen and loved it, so this year the family watched the film together at home.

I enjoyed the film more than I thought I would. To me, what’s interesting about it is how it sketches, through a strange dream sequence, the psychology of loss and anxiety.

The boy at the center of the story worries that Santa Claus isn’t real and feels a sense of loss about that. It seems like, once the boy gets on the train to Christmasland at the North Pole, he should have an easy time getting there. But no. He finds himself atop the train, skiing down its roof with some weirdo ghost vagabond, worrying the entire train will crash or sink into water, riding a car detached from the main train, then wandering through a creepy abandoned toy factory looking for the “main event.” Watching the film might be the closest a toddler can get to the experience of an acid trip.

I still found the visual effects, computer animation based on live-action motion capture, totally bizarre and creepy. But in a way that enhanced the nightmare-like quality of the film.

Maybe the film is about learning to appreciate as myth a story one no longer believes is literally true. If so, I suspect that meaning goes over the heads of young viewers. Taken straight, the message of the story is that if you really believe something to be the case, the belief alone can make it the case. If you believe Santa is real, Santa is real. If you believe a silent bell will ring, it will ring, just because you believed it would. And this carries beyond the dream sequence to when the boy is awake.

What is a secular, science-minded parent to do with this? Obviously it is dangerous to think that wishing alone will make it so. If you wish something is so and then work to make it so through natural processes, great. If you appreciate the significance of a myth, great. But if you want a silent bell to ring, you can’t just believe it will ring. You have to do something, depending on the problem, to fix the bell or fix your hearing. As it is, thematically, the film’s a mess. I guess, by negative example, the film offers an opportunity for parents to discuss with their children the dynamics of myth and the nature of perception.

You know what would have made this a great film? In the film there’s a lonely and poor boy who gets on the train and finally makes friends with the main character and another girl. Well, in the end we’re just supposed to believe that Santa Claus alleviates the boy’s poverty and family troubles, at least for the day. What would have been a great ending is if the main boy had recognized the true spirit of Christmas and talked his parents into visiting the boy (he could have been planted in the story prior to the dream sequence) and inviting him on a genuine holiday adventure.

As it is, the film ends with the main boy ringing some damned bell like some drooling moron. Lame.

But, as I mentioned to one of my friends via social media, he just needs to believe that the film is good.

Image: Noël Zia Lee