Movie Review - The Polar Express

NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.
Robert Zemeckis
Castle Rock Entertainment

The Polar Express is the story of a boy who needed to learn the true meaning of Christmas, and a magical train that took him on an inspiring journey of danger and discovery, to the place of Christmas’s origin. It sounds kind of like a mix of The Nativity Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas and Thomas the Tank Engine, doesn’t it? That’s far from the feeling you get from watching it, though.

For one thing, the plot isn’t anywhere near as cohesive, if you can believe that. The boy has his dilemma that he has to get solved by the end of the movie, and sure enough, he gets it solved, but the ups and downs of the process tended to be a lot more literal than was good for the story. The Polar Express is filled with computer-generated roller coaster rides through snowstorms, tunnels, lakes of ice, the steepest railroad tracks and the most dizzying Christmas present assembly lines in the world, but, when you stop and think about it, none of it really has anything to do with… well, anything. Most of the journey to the North Pole, a few of the characters, and a solitary song-and-dance number about hot chocolate, would probably have served the plot better from the editing room floor; and the only reason I can think of why they even made it to the storyboard is that no one can deny they make for impressive computer animation.

Again, though, they’re not the point of the story, which is what makes The Polar Express so odd. It turns out that half of the objectionable content didn’t belong in the story to begin with, and the other half is the entire point of the movie.

Sexual Content:

You’d think, when the only female characters with significant screen time are little girls, that we could have avoided sexual stuff. Superfluous content in this category includes an inappropriately dressed doll and dancing elves; and when the boy, on a search-and-rescue mission, meets a hobo on the roof of the train, who asks him what he’s doing, says, “I’m looking for a girl,” the hobo laughs wildly and replies, “Ain’t we all?”

Of course, I’m inclined to think that inappropriate language is always superfluous. “Gee,” as it happens, is a euphemism for the Son of God— as is “Jumpin’ Jeepers.” “What in the name of Mike” is a lot less significant than that, but still a euphemism. “Stupid” is a word that is avoided by some families. Those phrases, we might have expected from Thomas the Tank Engine. But when the conductor says, “What the heck!” or even “the blazes,” in this movie, it’s pretty obvious what he really means is “h” followed by three dashes.

Violent and Intense Content:
In a fair world, with an unbiased panel of judges who actually saw the movie, The Polar Express would have rated a PG with no trouble at all. Here was I, making sure to write down the part at the beginning of the movie when the train approaches and the house starts to shake, because that scene might be alarming to small children; and there were the members of the Classification and Rating Administration, not thinking that parental guidance was advisable when the main characters literally almost lose their lives because of failed brakes, derailed cars, ice shattering behind them on the frozen lake, a falling Christmas tree topper the size of a small island, and the whims of a mad conductor who is about to throw the little girl off the roof of a speeding train if the boy can’t produce her lost ticket in time*. There are scenes of abandoned toys that might have been disturbing enough to get the movie a PG.

Not all of the violence is scary, though. Some of it’s funny… or supposed to be. Two men come pretty close to being smashed to death, as a bit of comic relief, and later a superfluous herd of caribou is driven away from the train tracks by the conductor yanking on a fellow’s beard to get him to scream. It says something about the movie when the only attempts at humor involve pain and impending death.


The hobo is not necessary to the story, which may not seem like a big deal, since most movies have characters that aren’t necessary, until you find out that this vagabond who lives on the roof of the train and claims to be “King of the North Pole” can dissolve into the wind at will. His nature is not defined in the film, except in hints here and there (and in the accepted fact that only certain kinds of beings can dissolve themselves). The conductor tells the children that he was saved once from falling off the train, by an invisible hand. “Someone saved you?” “Or something.” “An angel?” He says, “Maybe,” but he doesn’t really believe that’s what it was. The hobo himself only asks the boy if he believes in ghosts.

Incidentally, the intensity of the hobo’s character ought to have been enough to make objective adults suggest parental guidance.

It wasn’t necessary to the story for one of the little boys to wish on a star, or for the little girl to be the one who is encouraged to be the leader and put in charge of the train, or for her to lead the other children across a balance beam a thousand feet in the air in order to follow the magical sound of sleigh bells. Neither was it necessary for all the grown-ups in the movie except Santa Claus to be portrayed as inferior to the children… or mad.

Santa, I must say, was necessary to the plot. That does not, however, mean that I’m okay with him being there. I respect the parents who choose to maintain the tradition of Santa Claus in their households, and I’m not going to argue with their decision here. Be my opinion what it may, there’s still a difference between telling a child that Santa is real, and saying “Of course Santa’s for real. He’s as real as Christmas itself.” It’s one thing for a parent to say that there can’t be any presents from Santa unless a child goes to sleep, and another for the conductor to say that “There can be no Christmas without the Polar Express arriving on time!” Encouraging children to have their pictures taken with Santa, and to write letters to the North Pole every year, is a different thing from claiming that failing to do those things indicates a spiritual problem in a boy’s life. Real life traditions about Santa Claus are not the same thing as what goes on in The Polar Express.

Take a look, for a moment, at the list of Christmas songs featured in the movie: O Christmas Tree, Here Comes Santa Claus, Good King Wenceslas, Deck the Halls, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Silver Bells, Winter Wonderland, It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, White Christmas, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, and Jingle Bells. The closest thing to religious lyrics is a song extolling Santa’s omniscience, and an ode to an evergreen. In one of the songs written for the movie, the phrase “the herald angels sing” is used to announce the coming of Santa Claus. This is the soundtrack that helps the movie communicate its message.

Now have a guess at what is meant by the conductor’s “Christmas may not be important to some people, but it is very important to the rest of us!” or by Santa’s “The true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart.” Guess what they mean when they exhort the boy to “Believe”— the boy who can’t hear Santa’s sleigh bells like the other children can, until he repents of being a “doubter” and puts his faith in Santa Claus. Have a guess at what they mean when they say, “The thing about trains: it doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on.”

If I’m not going to debate the implications of Santa Claus in this review, I suppose I probably shouldn’t go too deep with the issue of elves. The question of “magic” (as in, “magical train”) could be resolved by the possibility that the whole story was only a dream, but the subject still requires a little caution.

Even if you could take away the worldview problems, and the violence that kept it from being suitable for a general audience, I still wouldn’t have cared much for The Polar Express. It feels very contrived, and very disjointed.

But you can’t take away the worldview; and the true meaning of Christmas, according to The Polar Express, is Santa, or family, or some abstract concept of thankfulness. The origins of Christmas lie in the North Pole, not in Bethlehem, in this version; and the plot of the movie— what little plot there is— centers around a crisis of faith which is solved by a little boy folding his hands and closing his eyes and whispering “I believe” to a sleigh bell.

I do not recommend The Polar Express… however, I don’t think there’s enough concrete unbiblical content to give me much support in a debate. The humanism can be felt more often than quoted, in this case. I caution families against showing this film to children under the age of ten, because of the violence and intensity (I still don’t know how it slipped by with a G), and I strongly suggest that families who still plan to see The Polar Express with their older children at least take the time to point out all the worldview problems it could have avoided by having a little more Charlie Brown and Matthew and Luke, and a lot less Santa Claus.

* Spoiler Warning (You may want to read the conclusion to the review to find out my recommended age range first, if you are looking for particulars for the sake of the young children in your family) - The conductor does not actually throw the little girl off the train, and apparently never intended to. The little boy wasn’t alone in thinking him capable of it, though.

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