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Zemeckis' "Polar Express" Transforms Christmas into Clausmas

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • Updated Jul 28, 2007
Zemeckis' "Polar Express" Transforms Christmas into Clausmas

Release Date:  November 10, 2004
Rating:  G
Genre:   Animation/Family
Run Time: 93 min.
Director:  Robert Zemeckis
Actors:  Tom Hanks, Leslie Harter Zemeckis, Eddie Deezen, Nona M. Gaye, Peter Scolari

There is something very sick about this movie, and it isn’t the fact that Tom Hanks plays nearly every role, as annoying as that is. 

It also isn’t the fact that a Christmas movie is being released weeks before Thanksgiving, as inexplicable as that is.  It’s the way that director Robert Zemeckis (“Romancing the Stone,” “Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump”) has beautifully and alluringly transformed Christmas into Clausmas, beckoning us to worship the jolly old elf as the heart and soul of this all-important holiday.  And that’s something that Christians should be very upset about indeed.

Based on the 1985 picture book by Chris Van Allsburg, which won the Caldecott Award, “The Polar Express” relates the story of Hero Boy (Hanks), whose belief in Santa Claus is starting to falter.  With a stack of newspaper clippings and a Norman Rockwell cover from the “Saturday Evening Post” to bolster his suspicions, Hero Boy plays along, to keep his sister and parents happy.  But he no longer “believes.”

One snowy Christmas Eve, just minutes before midnight, an express locomotive appears on Hero Boy’s front lawn.  A friendly conductor (Hanks) beckons him aboard, where children are merrily enjoying the ride to the North Pole.  Hero Boy makes friends with Hero Girl (Nona Gaye), Know-It-All Boy (Eddie Deezen) and Lonely Boy (Peter Scolari), but after losing Hero Girl’s ticket, must climb to the top of the train.  There, he encounters a mysterious hobo (Hanks) who dispenses advice.

Thanks to two slapstick engineers, the train ride becomes perilous, traveling up and down snowy peaks and racing across a frozen lake, trying to outrun an ice crack which threatens them with certain extinction.  Once at the North Pole, the adventures continue as the children eagerly await the appearance of Santa and his dispensing of the first gift of the season.

The technology behind this film is amazing, with visuals like no other seen in cinema.  Zemeckis attached dozens of motion-detecting lights to the actors then superimposed animated characters onto their faces, creating a unique blend of real and artificial.  Together with the computer-generated sets and visual effects, the results are stunning to look at.  Hanks does a good job with his many roles, which also include the boy’s father and Santa.  Unfortunately, it’s not enough to overcome the desperation and emptiness that overshadows this ambitious effort.

The problem, of course, is its message, which has been hijacked by a secular culture intent on removing Jesus Christ from the Christ Mass.  The entire film revolves around the exhortation to “believe,” with promises that we can’t always see that which is real. But sadly, faith in this film means believing in Santa – nothing more, nothing less – which is symbolized by the ability to hear the chime of a certain sleigh bell.  When Santa does appear, he is a benevolent giant looming over everyone, magically choosing one child to receive the first gift of the year.  Like the millions of elves who wait breathlessly for Santa’s arrival on Christmas Eve, we, too are asked to hold our breath in anticipation, then bow to this pagan god. 

To my surprise – and to the great detriment of the story – Santa chooses (brief spoiler ahead) Hero Boy rather than Lonely Boy to receive that gift.  How sad, for it is Lonely Boy who has lived his entire life in poverty, never receiving even one Christmas present.  And what a lesson that might have been for children to care for those less fortunate, putting the needs of others ahead of their own.  Yet there is no selflessness here.

Instead, the story hammers once again its crucial “believe in Santa” message, when Hero Boy opts not for a toy but for a bell that has fallen from Santa’s sleigh.  Santa commends him for his wise choice, because the sleigh bell is “a wonderful symbol of the spirit of Christmas.”  Santa then reminds the child that “the true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart.”  Ah, the old feel-good “spirit of Christmas.”  What is it but chestnuts roasting on an open fire, winter wonderlands and warnings to behave, lest Santa cross you off his list?  What else could Christmas be but stockings hung by the chimney with care, visions of dancing sugarplums and a merry “Ho! Ho! Ho!” fading into the twilight of dawn?

Nostalgia is wonderful thing, and this story is full of references to yesteryear, from Hero Boy’s “Lone Ranger” slippers to the background Sinatra and Crosby songs (not a Christian hymn was playing, not even a tune).  But these happy memories also came during a time when families were intact, unlike the current stew of ‘steps,’ ‘partners,’ ‘significant others’ and wildly-creative euphemisms we must apply to strangers invading our family celebrations – which may or may not involve family.  Of course, those same Baby Boomers who long for that brief moment in childhood history are also the ones who shattered that era with exhortations to “Make love not war,” “Find yourself” and “If it feels good, do it.”  So it’s a little late now to expect us to believe that by embracing the man in red, all will be well in the world.  Call me the Grinch, but that ain’t the North Pole – that’s La La Land.

These aren’t the only empty messages in “The Polar Express,” which churns out clichés like the elves making presents.  “There’s no greater gift than friendship,” says one character, discounting things like sacrifice, duty and honor-bound commitment, much less – oh, I don’t know … maybe someone dying for you?  On a cross, perhaps?  But you can’t frost cookies shaped like that now, can you?

The real Nicholas, who set an example by helping the needy (unlike this film, which leaves them to fend for themselves), never intended to be worshipped, much less have this “holy day” revolve around him, no matter how distorted his image might become.  And like the Christ who preceded him, that Nicholas knew that Christmas was not about him or us – something this story tragically fails to see.

The scary thing about “The Polar Express” is not that non-believers are now trying to define our religious holiday, as bad as that is.  (Maybe next year Warner Brothers will remake Hanukkah or Ramadan – let’s see how well that goes over.)  The most frightening thing about this film is how deceptive it is.  It beckons us to another land – a beautiful, seductive place filled with tradition, story and the power of myth.  But no matter how alluring this place might seem, it is ultimately a land of great desolation.  For, without a Savior who removes from us the stains of corruption, greed and wrongdoing, we remain tied to self, lost in a sea of longing.

“The Polar Express” will appeal to many people, but its success will only reveal how very far from the real Christmas and the real Spirit we have truly strayed.

AUDIENCE: All ages


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:    None. 
  • Language/Profanity:   None.  There is an “almost” obscenity, when a character says “I’ll tell you what’s grass, it’s my owwwwwww!”
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:   None.
  • Violence:    Mild. Lots of wild rides, with the train veering off the tracks onto cracking ice and going down rollercoaster-like plunges. Children get into perilous situations, like crossing moving train cars or almost falling from the train, as well as various mishaps at the North Pole like falling onto conveyor belts, but nothing bad ever happens.