We love to tell stories. They entertain us, make us laugh, make us cry, and make us think. Some stories amuse us for a while and are then forgotten. Others stick with us. Some may seem very significant when we hear them, yet they fade away, while others prove to be surprisingly durable over time, revealing depths not evident at first glance. One of these deep and durable stories is “The Polar Express.”
When “The Polar Express” film was released in 2004, it was a hit. Its central tale was charming. Its use of CGI was not utterly revolutionary, but it dazzled in a way that hadn’t quite been done before. Alan Silvestri’s score may not have been groundbreaking, but it served the visuals with a grand sweep. It received a fair share of criticism, especially in the way the CGI facial expressions seemed a little, well, off. Fifteen years later, though, the film is still popular, and the story still speaks to us.
Several themes recur throughout the film: the contrast between seeing and believing and the importance of the latter, knowing when to lead and when to rely on others, and the importance of humility, kindness, and friendship. The never-named Hero Boy’s trip to the North Pole and back, though, is the central journey of the tale.
Unusual Casting in ‘The Polar Express’
One feature which is central to understanding this film properly is its unusual casting. While other actors contribute to various characters, such as Hero Boy (Daryl Sabara from Spy Kids) and the fireman (Michael Jeter who played Mr. Noodle on “Sesame Street”), Tom Hanks voices multiple central characters. The boy’s father, the conductor, the hobo, and Santa are all played by Hanks. Hanks even does Hero Boy’s motion capture. (This is evident in the scene where the boy stands in front of the engine and gapes at it. The expression is pure Tom Hanks.)
This is both odd and important. It’s true that if you have an A-list actor, you make the most of him, but casting him in multiple central roles — and making them all resemble him — is atypical. After all, Hanks played Woody in “Toy Story,” but he wasn’t Buzz and Slinky and Andy and Sid. This matters for understanding the film and its enduring appeal because all these Hanks appearances represent different facets of the boy’s understanding of his father, and the journey is part of his maturation from boyhood into manhood. His father is the model that forms him.
The Conductor Maintains Order
The conductor shows one image the boy has of his father. In this role, he is focused on maintaining order, which makes him tense. His concern is clearly for the train to reach the North Pole on time. The flow of time is not obvious, for the majority of the story occurs while time appears to be paused at five minutes until midnight. Still, the conductor seems to think the possibility of being late, thus hindering Santa’s delivery for Christmas Eve, is very real.
The conductor also clarifies the lessons each child on the train must learn. He punches these tasks on their tickets: LEARN, DEPEND ON/COUNT ON/RELY ON, LEAD, and of course, BELIEVE. They must learn how to learn, how to organize and assimilate information. They have to learn both independence and interdependence, when to go it alone and when to ask for help. They have to understand how to inspire others, as well as when (and whom) to trust for leadership. Finally, they have to understand not only the necessity of belief, but how to determine which belief systems are worthy or unworthy of their faith.
Finally, the conductor has the ability to navigate others through seemingly impossible situations. His communication with caribou by yanking on the beard of the fireman is one of the funnier moments in the film. When the train is sliding across a frozen lake, he helps guide the engineer (how exactly does one steer a steam engine?) to land the train safely on the tracks. He remains calm, articulates the situation, and makes a basic recommendation when truly nothing can be done: “Considering the fact that we have lost communication with the engineer, we are standing totally exposed on the front of the locomotive, the train appears to be accelerating uncontrollably, and we are rapidly approaching Glacier Gulch, which just happens to be the steepest downhill grade in the world, I suggest we all hold on tightly!”
How do these reflect on the boy’s father? When a father’s role is to maintain order, this can cause frustration to a boy (or girl), but in time the child gradually understands the need for it. A father figure can also teach important life lessons, from everyday tasks such as baiting a hook or changing a tire, to more important skills such as dealing with success or failure. A father teaches how to cope with and adapt to changing circumstances.
The Hobo Is an Enigma
The hobo is, to say the least, enigmatic. His welcome to his fireside with a “cup of joe,” followed by his pulling a sock out of the pot, causing the boy to cough and gag in disgust, provides a model for offering hospitality — and demonstrates benign ignorance of what a guest’s expectations might be. The hobo can be frightening: His declaration to the boy that “You don’t want to be bamboozled! You don’t want to be led down the primrose path! You don’t want to be conned, or duped, have the wool pulled over your eyes! Hoodwinked! You don’t want to be taken for a ride! Railroaded!” is a little intimidating. And when he dangles the puppet of Ebenezer Scrooge, the boy is disoriented and alarmed. In both cases, however, he is making a point. As he douses his fire, he articulates the boy’s doubts and, with the puppet, warns about where a refusal to believe anything can lead.
The hobo also deals with dangerous situations and protects the boy. When on skis on the train’s roof, the hobo catches him and keeps him from falling. During the train’s slide across the ice, he appears briefly to grab the boy, who in turns holds the conductor, who holds the girl, saving them all. He then vanishes — not the first time he has disappeared — as though he wants only the boy to see him. When the three children are on a runaway car at the North Pole, he helps the boy find the brake.
We see here a boy’s struggle to understand his father. Growing up, a boy often doesn’t understand his father’s actions or opinions, but over time he comes to appreciate some of them. He may even find himself eventually imitating his father in ways he didn’t anticipate. Still, his father often understands his needs and limitations in a way the boy himself doesn’t. A father also has skills and abilities that a boy, not having yet learned them, finds mysterious.
The hobo underscores the theme of faith in one other interesting way. He asks the boy, “Do you believe in ghosts?” The boy answers in the negative, although it’s not clear whether he is telling the truth. The hobo simply responds, “Interesting.” This, along with his ability to appear and disappear at will, strongly implies he may be a ghost. In other words, the boy has denied belief in something he plainly sees. From here, it is not a long leap to espousing belief in something not seen, a central theme of the film.
Santa Is the Giver of Gifts
The appearance of Santa Claus also emphasizes the film’s themes. At first, the boy can’t see Santa. He can’t hear the bells, which Hero Girl exclaims to be “the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard.” He is blinded by his refusal to believe. His frustration grows until, feeling he has nothing to lose, he declares three times that he believes.
Unexpectedly, he now has Santa’s undivided attention. Santa then chooses the boy to be the recipient of the first gift, and this gift is a symbol of his newfound belief. When the boy loses the bell, Santa restores it to him, after which he never fails to hear the bell. Even after each of his friends and his sister cease to believe, he never does.
This reminds us of the boy’s father. Children, being utterly helpless at the beginning, receive all they have from their parents. They understand their parents as, among other things, givers of gifts, from daily needs such as food to special occasion gifts. A child’s complete dependence upon his parents also engenders a simple faith — a baby cries and knows, even without the ability to believe in the active sense, his needs will be met. This serves as the basis for the future development of religious faith, and it is no accident Santa is shown surrounded with a roseate glow suggesting some unearthly quality, though perhaps not quite outright divinity.
‘The Polar Express’ Teaches Something About Manhood
Of all these characters, the first we meet is the father himself. His future appearances in various guises is foreshadowed by the fact that the first time we see him in silhouette, the boy thinks he is seeing Santa Claus. The fact that “Santa” turns out to be just “Dad” demonstrates the boy’s growing disillusionment. In the end, the father is also unable to hear the bell ring. For all that the boy has come to understand about his father, he must also come to grips with the fact that his father is, like all men, flawed.
We tell stories because they speak to us. While they can simply be enjoyable, they often connect us to deeper truths. This has to happen organically — a story which is simply a vehicle for making a point will fail in both efforts. While not every form of entertainment must make a philosophical or political point, the best stories tell us things we already knew intuitively to be true.
It’s been a tough year for men, or more broadly speaking, for masculinity. (In fairness, femininity hasn’t been doing that great, either.) As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we can gain a deeper appreciation of “The Polar Express” by seeing how it celebrates the best of manhood, exploring the role of a father in his boy becoming a man.