The problem with a fantasy story like “The Polar Express” is that you’re required to believe. We live in a skeptical world that doesn’t believe easily in things it can’t see or touch or prove in a court of law.
In other words, many people don’t believe in things that they can’t somehow control. Which is completely backwards. Believing in something means recognizing that some things exist that are outside of our experience and understanding, and trusting that we can find solutions that we don’t have yet. This is the essence of hope, which provides a strength far beyond that of many “realists”. Children are very good at making belief – finding ways to hope. But somewhere along the way, they “grow up”. That is, they stop hoping in the chance for change, and start planning for a life of disappointments.
“The Polar Express” is visually stunning for its detailed animation, to the reflection in the pupils of its main character, a young boy who is on the verge of abandoning his childhood beliefs in Santa Claus. He knows that some store employees and some fathers disguise themselves as Santa. He’s also looked up the North Pole in his encyclopedia and discovered it is incapable of sustaining life. By all appearances, the whole Santa Claus routine is just an enormous trick played on children.
The train’s conductor (Tom Hanks) asks the boy, “Well? You comin’?”
“Where?” the boy asks.
“Why, to the North Pole, of course! This is the Polar Express!”
Naturally, the boy is confused. The conductor lists off concerns about the boy’s waning belief in Santa Claus: he has written no list, not sat on Santa’s lap at the store, and made his sister put out Santa’s milk and cookies. “Sounds to me like this is your crucial year,” the conductor says, leaning down to the boy’s face. “If I were you, I would think about climbing on board.”
The boy declines, nervous, and the train departs. At the last moment, the boy leaps onto the train and steps inside. There, he find several other children in pajamas, all intrigued at the prospect of visiting the North Pole. He meets another boy, a know-it-all who’s even more skeptical about Santa Claus – and everything else, for that matter – than he is. He also meets a friendly young girl who seems ready to believe and eager to help others.
Soon, they stop at the house of a poor boy on the other side of town, who declines the conductor’s invitation. But then he starts to run after the train at the last moment, just as the first boy had. But he’s too far away to catch up.
The first boy pulls the emergency brake, stopping the train so the other boy can climb aboard. When he does, he retreats to the caboose, separating himself from the other children. When everyone is served hot chocolate, the girl sets a spare tray aside to take to the boy in back.
But she forgets her train ticket on the seat. Knowing how vital it is to keep hold of their tickets, the first boy grabs it to take it back to her. But he loses it in the wind when he steps out the rear door.
But through the miraculous magic of the Polar Express, the ticket returns to the train a few minutes later for the boy to retrieve. Fearing the conductor intends to throw the girl off the train, the boy tries to find them. Pursuing them to the top of the train, he runs into a mysterious ghostly hobo, who encourages him not to be taken in by the whole idea of Santa Claus. “Seeing is believing. Am I right?” the hobo says.
When the boy finally does reach the North Pole, he and the girl have met Billy, the poor boy secluding himself in the back of the train. Billy tells them, “Christmas just doesn’t work out for me. Never has.” And so he doesn’t plan to leave the train to meet Santa. The boy urges the conductor that Billy needs to leave the train, but the conductor tells him, “No one is required to see Santa.” Even when presented with the very thing they long for, each child must choose whether to accept it.
The boy and the girl try to reason with Billy in the caboose, which accidentally gets disconnected from the rest of the train and rolls down a hill. When it finally stops, the children are hopelessly lost in the vast city of Santa’s North Pole workshop. They eventually make their way back, in time to see the arrival of Santa Claus.
But the boy can’t see Santa over the crowd of cheering children. He can’t even hear the bells of Santa’s sleigh that the other kids seem to hear. Until one of the bells falls from a reindeer’s neck and rolls to his feet. The boy picks it up and shakes it, but still hears nothing.
Until he determines to believe, to the point of saying aloud, “I believe.” When he shakes it once more, it rings loud and clear. And he realizes that only believers can hear the sound.
At that moment, Santa Claus appears next to him. Soon, the boy is chosen to receive the first present of Christmas, so he asks for a bell from Santa’s sleigh. Handing it to him, Santa says, “This bell is a wonderful symbol of the spirit of Christmas, as am I. Just remember, the true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart.”
When they board the train to return home, the boy discovers the sleigh bell has fallen through a hole in his robe pocket. The train starts off before the children can look for it, and the bell is lost forever.
But the boy is encouraged when Billy returns home and finds that, this year, he has received a present from Santa. The next morning – Christmas day – the boy finds a special present under his tree. Wrapped in a box is a shining sleigh bell, which the parents cannot hear ringing. But the boy can. The film ends with the boy, narrating as an adult:
At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell.
But as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found, one Christmas, that she could no longer hear its sweet sound.
Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.
Life is full of discouragement and disappointment. Christmases that “just don’t work out”. People that let us down, making us wonder why we trusted them. Losses of jobs, homes, health and loved ones that make us despair, ready to lay down in retreat rather than face one more day.
Learning to believe in possibilities outside of our own experience – learning to hope – is what keeps us going through disappointment and hard times. Knowing that we can endure one bad experience after another, because there is still a chance for something new to develop. The ones who give up on life are the ones who never learn how to hope. How to believe.
This Christmas, make a decision to hope. To expect things to change and to improve. To look for new solutions that you haven’t considered before. To talk to people that you haven’t talked to before, or those you haven’t talked to in a while. Imagine new possibilities, and believe when all the dust of Christmas settles and the decorations are taken down and the holiday light leaves everyone’s eyes, you’ll still be standing, in January and throughout the new year, and throughout the years to come.
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