Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Polar Express: A Journey of Faith

Some stories have a great message but don't weave it in well with the plot - simply adding it to the end like a caboose or forcing it upon the viewers like an out-of-control steam engine. Not so with The Polar Express!

One thing that has struck me every time I've seen the movie is how deep it is. The theme is complex, beautiful, and both obvious and
mysterious. It's not a movie that lulls me into a cozy stupor. It's a thought-provoking movie that challenges me to make connections between all the little parts.

My family was kind enough to watch this movie with me last night in honor of "Christmas in July." ;) So now that the story is fresh in my mind, I'd like to share with you how I see The Polar Express as a journey of faith:

A Journey of Faith

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
~ Hebrews 11:1

Faith. It's what this boy longs for on Christmas Eve, and what he lacks as he waits in bed for the dreaded Christmas morning when all his doubts will be realized. Until a loud rumble announces the arrival of The Polar Express - an opportunity to put his faith to the test if he'll climb on board.

He almost doesn't, but something compels him to give this crazy ride a try. In his pocket appears a golden ticket - "a genuine ticket to ride," as the hobo later refers to these. (But I'm getting ahead of myself!) And the conductor, who is a bit obsessed with keeping to his schedule, punches the boy's ticket with a hole-puncher, forming the two letters "B" and "E" on opposite ends of the ticket.

The Train Ticket

For those of you who have already seen the movie, you'll remember that all of the children on the train have tickets. But at one point when a sweet young girl heads to the caboose to give some hot chocolate to a shy little boy, our hero finds the girl's ticket on her seat and decides to take it to her. And as he steps outside the train car, the ticket slips away into the wind.

Were you like me and curious as to why there was so much focus on the ticket? I mean, it was very cool to see the ticket's travels as it flew through a wolf pack, got snatched by an eagle, snowballed down a hill, and eventually wound up back on the train. But why show all that? Well, as with many things in this movie, I think it's an important symbol. That ticket was a gift: permission given to the girl by someone in authority to be on that train.

Isn't that, in one aspect, what salvation is? We're given a gift - permission to be on God's train, so to speak - that could only come from someone in authority, and it's something we can show to prove that we do indeed have a right to be on the train (through God's grace and calling).

So when the girl loses her ticket, it's disastrous. (That's not to say that this is an exact connection and she symbolically "lost her salvation" or anything like that; I just think the tickets are meaningful symbols.) The parallel came in earlier when the hero asked the girl, "Are you sure?" (Referring to bringing the hot chocolate to the caboose.) And she didn't answer. There was doubt, and she wasn't quite confident at that point in who she was.

The Hobo

Now we come to the hobo who hitches a ride on the top of the train. I have to admit that even though the hobo is a sort of "villain" in this movie, I really like his character. He adds a lot of mystery to the plot, because even though he encourages the boy to doubt Santa (and all that Christmas stands for), he also saves the boy and his friends on a couple of occasions. So who exactly is he? A ghost, as he himself suggests? An angel - or perhaps the devil?

I confess that I have a terrible time trying to define him. But when I stop trying to put him into a preconceived box, I realize that he is an important part of the journey. He is helpful in that he challenges the boy. He physically "saves" our hero a couple of times, paralleling the fact that he "saves" the boy from borrowing someone else's faith or having a false faith. He makes the boy question whether it is all a dream - whether this journey and its destination are real or not. He calls him a "scrooge" and a "doubter," and later on when the boy is trying to hear the sounds of the bell, he first hears the word "doubt" echoing instead.

Our own faith can't be something that we borrow from someone else, be it family, friend, teacher, or anyone else. And if it is to be a true and personal faith, it has to be something that lasts through trials and stands through doubts, questions, and worries.


I love how timing plays a role throughout this movie. As mentioned earlier, the conductor is constantly worried about being late as he tries to keep the train running on schedule. But despite all of the obstacles (the roller coaster-type ride, slipping over the ice-covered tracks, etc.), they make it to the North Pole right on time (5 minutes to midnight). And when the hero, the girl, and the shy boy end up getting separated from the rest, it remains 5 minutes to midnight until they are returned. (Gotta love that North Pole clock!)

During that time of separation, our three friends end up crossing a sort of "bridge of faith" (more so for the hero, who can't hear the bells at that point and has to trust the girl's sense of direction) and find themselves in the gift department. That's when the shy boy (Billy) comes across a gift addressed to him.

But on that gift is a sticker that reads, "Do not open until Christmas." I'm sure many of us are familiar with that idea - you have to be patient and wait until Christmas day to open your gifts, even if they're beckoning to you from under the Christmas tree, within your reach.

Isn't it wonderful, though, when you finally get to open the gift surrounded by friends and family, listening to Christmas music and sitting by the lovely Christmas tree? That's when it's just right to open the gift.

Just like our Christmas gifts, God has so many good gifts for us. And how many of them have stickers on their wrapping telling us to wait until God's perfect timing to open them? I confess that this is something I have a very difficult time with - I'm not a patient person! Yet, God's timing is always perfect, and just like the elf tells Billy to trust him with Billy's gift, so we must trust that God will give us the gifts He has planned for us when the time is right. They are safe in His hands.


While I was hopeful that this was a Christian movie "in disguise," I know that isn't really the case, as evidenced by the words the conductor says near the end: "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is that you choose to get on." (Not his exact phrasing, but you get the idea.) By saying that, there's the suggestion that the destination doesn't really matter, so long as you believe in something.

As a believer in the God of the Bible, I don't think that's true. I think that it really does matter where the train is going.

But despite that, I think this movie's message about belief is so eloquent. When our hero can't hear the bells, we as an audience are allowed to step into his shoes, as we can't hear the bells either. He's frustrated, hurting, aching. And when Santa finally appears, he can't even see him around the elves who are also trying to get a glimpse. He shouts, "I can't see him!"

It brings to mind the point earlier when the hobo told him, "Seeing is believing." And when the conductor later said, "Sometimes seeing is believing. And sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can't see."

Now everything slows around him, and he watches as a bell breaks free from a harness on the sleigh and rolls towards him. He picks it up in the silence and tries to ring it, to no avail. All he hears is the echo of "doubt."

So he must make a choice. Does he believe? Does he believe that Santa is real - that Christmas with all of its joy and warmth and love is real and true? And does he believe it even when he can't see it?

In a breaking voice he finally admits, "OK. I believe. I believe. I believe." Repeating it over and over until Santa approaches him. Then he is chosen as the child who gets the first gift of Christmas. And he chooses the bell - the symbol of his faith.

When his ticket is punched again after this journey is complete, the missing letters are filled in to spell "BELIEVE." But when he gets on the train he realizes that he put the bell in the robe pocket with the hole in it. The bell fell out at some point. So now that his visible symbol of faith is gone, will he still believe?

Throughout the rest of Christmas Eve and onward, I think it is evident that he ultimately does. He eventually gets his bell back, but he knows that it is just a symbol. Its ringing reminds him that he still holds onto faith, even when he grows up.

And so our own faith is like that bell. Its sweet music of hope is our assurance, and our friendship with our Lord through faith is our evidence in the things we cannot yet see. Just like Santa tells Billy: "Friendship is the greatest gift."

(Note: Movie cover image is from IMDb.com, movie photos are from The Polar Express website, and the song clip is from YouTube.com.)


Sara said...

Oh my gosh, I LOVE this movie!! Since it's only been out for a few years, I was around 25 when I first saw it, but it has such a great message and always makes me a little teary eyed. Great insight, Amber!

Julie said...

This is one of my husbands favorite movies. Now it may be mine after reading your insights on it!

Renee said...

I enjoyed your review as much as I enjoy The Polar Express! It's one of my favorites to watch with my little niece and nephews. But for some reason, the end makes the little ones sad. Maybe it depends on how close to bedtime we are . . . :)

Joy Tamsin David said...

Have you ever read the book? The illustrations by Chris Van Allsburg are hauntingly beautiful. This was one of those books I didn't really want to see turned into a movie because the book was so magical. The movie takes lots of liberties with the story.

In my first grade class, I have the book which came in a gift set with the bell. Every year, I gather the class on the rug, open the gift set, and read the kids the book. When I'm finished, I put on my sad face and say, "Oh, this book came with a bell but mine must be broken because it doesn't seem to work. I guess I'll have to take it back to the store."

As I say this, I'm waving the bell around and the kids are going crazy because they all hear it. They're all young enough to believe I can't really hear it. It's lots of fun.

Amber Holcomb said...


Oh, I love this movie, too! So well done on so many levels - from animation to music to message. :) So glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for stopping by!


Amber Holcomb said...


Aw, that means so much to me! I always have so much to ponder when I watch this movie, so it took me a little while to get these thoughts down. Such a thought-provoking and inspiring movie! :)


Amber Holcomb said...

Renee Ann,

That's so sweet of you to say! :D Isn't it such a great movie? Both fun and touching. Sounds like your family really enjoys it, too!

And yes, bedtime can be a sad thing at times... ;)


Amber Holcomb said...


No, I actually haven't read the book, but it sounds wonderful! Is it a chapter book, or just a shorter children's book?

I guess I'm a bit biased towards the movie since I haven't read the book, but even if it is different, I'm sure they both have inspiring qualities! :)

And that is so cute about your first grade class! They must love that! ;D


Anonymous said...

Always love watching this movie with you and all the other favorites we have as a family!
Your post is amazing and a very wonderful, meaningful way to view this movie but you always add special insight to movies we watch. Love you always and Merry Christmas in July!!!
Love, Mom

Amber Holcomb said...

Aww, Mom!

Thank you for dropping in - I love watching this movie and any movie with you (even the new Winnie the Pooh movie!). ;)

Thank you for your kind words and for always encouraging me in all that I do. You're the best, Mom!! And Merry Christmas in July to you, as well! :)


Michelle said...

Amber! I love this post, and all of the thoughtful insight you put into it. : )

I love this movie, too!

In regards to believing, I just recently read this in the "Streams in the Desert" devotional for July 24 . . . "The world says that 'seeing is believing,' but God wants us to believe in order to see." Isn't that the truth? When I was a non-believer in my "lost" condition, I had a very difficult time "seeing." At the time, I didn't even know I was lost. But once I was "found," . . . WOW! My eyes were opened up like never before to His amazing grace and truth; opened up to "friendship" with Him, that truly is the greatest gift.

Thanks again for sharing this, Amber. Merry Christmas in July!


Amber Holcomb said...


I'm so glad!! :D

And what beautiful timing to have read that devotional piece just the other day! Very true, and a great reminder! Thank you so much for sharing that with us, and especially for sharing about your own story of belief and the amazing gift you found in God. :) He is so good, and I'm so glad He used this post to touch you and your comment to bless me! :D

Merry Christmas in July to you, too, and thank you for your kind words and friendship!


Michelle said...

You're so sweet, Amber! You're welcome and THANK YOU! ((((HUGS)))

Michelle : )

Amber Holcomb said...


Awww! :D I'm so blessed to have made such wonderful friends through blogging!!

(((HUGS))) to you, as well! :D


Unknown said...

What if the Hobo character was not sinister but just questioning your belief. I have a analytical belief if not discovered yet...same actor for 3 characters: Santa (the Father) Conductor (Son) Hobo (the Holy Ghost) Polar Express (Life's journey) North Pole (Heaven) The Bell (the Cross) a wonderful symboll of the Spirit Just remember the true Spirit lives in your heart

Amber Holcomb said...


How interesting! I hadn't really thought of the potential meaning/symbolism in the same voice for those three characters. That's a thought-provoking take on it! I like the reminder that the Holy Spirit convicts us and teaches us (John 14 and 16).

Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! :)