Honest to God Nightmare Fuel
I need to point out from the get-go: much like Halloweentown before it, this is a Freking family staple. My wife adores this film. She grew up with it, it means a lot to her. I respect her decision to like this movie, even if I do not agree with it. I will grin and bear it and play on my phone while they watch. After all, only God can judge us.
But there is no God in the uncanny valley of The Polar Express.
Look, the book is good. When I was in 1st grade, my teacher, Mrs. Anderson, read this book to us around Christmas time. At the end, it’s all like, “And the boy has the bell so that means he really DID go to the North Pole,” and then Mrs. A was like “Yeah, this really happened. It happened to my husband.” And we’re like, “Nuh-uh,” because we are smart and discerning 1st graders. And she’s like, “Check it fools,” and pulls out THE GODDAMN BELL FROM THE END OF THE BOOK. We lost our damn minds. So, I do have positive associations with the IP, but the movie. Well…
The movie opens with our main character (named “Hero Boy”) lying in bed. He hears thumps and bumps and is like, “Yo, that’s Santa Claus.” He goes downstairs, sees the milk and cookies untouched and shakes his head. HB does a lot of head shaking in this movie, just fyi. He sees a shadow from the hallway that looks like Santa, but it’s really his dad (played by Tom Hanks) carrying his little sister and her hand looked like a Santa hat (???). He bolts upstairs and pulls out his evidence against Santa which includes a picture of a kid ripping off Santa’s beard, that one Saturday Evening Post cover where the kid looks in a dresser and finds a Santa hat, and some other stuff that I can’t remember. He scoffs (SCOFFS!) and runs to his WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA and looks up “North Pole”. The camera zooms and then goes underneath (???) some writing that says “DEVOID OF LIFE”. Definitive proof. HB goes to sleep.
Then he wakes up AGAIN because some loud ass rumbling is happening. Then WHOOSH a giant train comes rolling down the street. He’s like “WHAAAA-” and grabs his robe. The bedpost rips a hole in the pocket and what sounds like thousands of marbles come falling out. This is how we know it’s the 1950’s because kids carried marbles everywhere they went. “Check out my new cat’s eye, Lil Jimmy!” says our Hero Boy all while smoking a Lucky Stripe Cigarette (the only cigarette that is recommended for children by doctors!). Honestly, it’s a really pretty shot when he sees the train outside. There are a few gems in this movie, but BOY DO YOU NEED POLISH TO FIND THEM.
We are introduced to the Conductor (played by Tom Hanks), one of my least favorite characters in all of cinema (my least favorite is Hero Boy, but we will get to that). The Conductor is like “Ya comin’?” and HB is like “Where?” and he responds “WHY TO THE NORTH POLE OF COURSE!” Umm, hi, “of course”? How was ANYONE supposed to know this was going to the North Pole? A TRAIN just pulled up DOWN A RESIDENTIAL STREET and you think the boy is stupid for asking a COMPLETELY VALID question about where this strange man is trying to take him? Anyway, the kid hops on and a snowman waves at him. MAGIC.
Next comes a bevy of introductions. We get Hero Girl, the only POC in the whole movie. She smiles at the Hero Boy while he looks away shyly because, you know, it’s the 1950’s. Then we get the worst introduction of all time. A towheaded, weasel-voiced cretin pops over the back of the seat. “HEY.” No response. “HEY YOU.” HB looks. “DO YA KNOW WHAT KINDA TRAIN THIS IS?” I don’t advocate for violence against children, I truly don’t, but this child has the most punchable face… His name is “Know-It-All” because character names are hard!
Our last important introduction comes after they stop at their final stop. “The other side of the tracks!” exclaims Mandark the Know-It-All. This is Billy, our only named character. He talks with the Conductor and, like a smart child should do, said that he didn’t want to get on the train. The train starts moving and he’s like “HOLD UP” and starts running to catch the train. The HB opens the window and is like “Come on, run faster!” In response, Billy trips and falls flat on his face. It makes me laugh everytime. So, like a rational child would do, he doesn’t let the Conductor know that he wants to get on, he just PULLS THE EMERGENCY BRAKE. A couple things: 1. I’m pretty illiterate about trains. 2. I’m pretty sure the e-brake isn’t in a passenger car.
Billy gets on, sits in a car separate from the group, and then the Hot Chocolate song starts. A lot of people remember this scene positively. They are wrong. I’ll link it here so you can watch. BEFORE YOU DO: I want you to focus on the waiters during your viewing. Okay, go watch… Welcome back! Are you sufficiently horrified by these robotic mannequins, masquerading a waiters? Their faces don’t move, they all have the same movements. It’s literally a copy paste over and over again. Horrifying. The only other thing that disturbs me more is when the Conductor just randomly wheezes into the mic during the song. What the hell, Tom?
Hero Girl, being the actual hero of the story, has kept a cup of the sweet nectar to give to Billy. Unfortunately, she forgets her ticket. Here is where Hero Boy makes his second villainous act. He grabs the ticket from her seat and starts to walk to the connecting car. Mandark is like “Hey, that’s illegal” and HB flips him the bird and opens the door. It’s super windy so the ticket is blown from his hand. He chuckles to himself as he sits down. “That’ll take care of her,” he thinks. “I’m one step closer to winning Santa’s workshop!” Maybe I’m confusing this with another movie, I dunno.
They get back and the Conductor asks for her ticket. The HB gleefully jumps up and yells “IT WAS ME! I TOOK HER TICKET AND I LOST IT!” So the Conductor is like “Alright little girl, come with me” and takes her outside. Mandark is like “They’re gonna throw her off the train!” because of course they would throw a tiny child off the train in the middle of the Arctic Circle. Miraculously, the ticket traveled through the wilderness and back into the train, so HB finds it. In a rare moment of sympathy, HB decides to give the ticket back to her. He climbs onto the roof where he meets Hobo (played by Tom Hanks). He’s playing “Good King Wenceslas” on a hurdy-gurdy which is a sentence I didn’t know I needed in my life. Hobo is terrifying and makes him drink sock coffee, but helps him get to the front of the train where he saw the Conductor take Hero Girl. He does this by SKIING DOWN THE TOP OF THE TRAIN WHICH IS LOGICAL.
Enter: The Engineers (Smokey and Steamer). These two bumblenuts are just there for “comic” relief. However, how can they be comic relief when one of them looks like this:
He finds HG manning the controls. Not like how pilots do it and pretend, no, she is literally the ONLY person running the train. The engineers tell her to stop the train. Seeing this as an opportunity to take over the train, HB gaslights HG into believing she has no clue which one the brake is. It’s despicable. Deciding that he can only get to his ultimate goal of enslaving the elves of Santa’s Workshop by train, he pulls the brake. They discover that a bunch of caribou have blocked the tracks. This leads to my favorite line from the movie: “By my estimation there must be over 100,000, maybe even a million!” There are clearly not that many. This is called “humor” and it is the only time you will find it in this movie.
So, HB, HG, and The Conductor are at the front of the train which is hurdling out of control. Because he does not fear death, The Conductor straps the kids in as they go on some sort of roller coaster thing which is… something. After that, the train goes over a frozen lake where the ice has frozen over the tracks and, boy howdy, is that a scene. It’s ridiculous. The back of the train is completely submerged at one point. It literally makes no sense, but EVERYONE IS FINE, much to Hero Boy’s chagrin.
I’m not going to go on and on about the rest of the train sequence because nothing important happens, except the Conductor takes them through a terrifying train car full of marionettes all while intoning “Ah, the forsaken, the abandoned.” Suddenly, one of the marionettes grabs HB and starts screaming at him about being a DOUBTER. It’s a Scrooge puppet (played by Tom Hanks) and it has it’s own entry on IMDB even though, within seconds, we see that Hobo is actually controlling it. Dumb.
The last scene I want to talk about is shortly after they get back into the train. Hero Girl, being a good person, goes to sit with Billy. HB follows because he’s a busybody. They find him standing off the back of the train, singing. Honestly, it’s a really touching scene and I have nothing mean to say about it. Billy and HG serenade and harmonize. It’s cute, go watch it.
I’m going to stop it here for now. Too much exposure to the Polar Express can cause dizziness and is potentially fatal. On Tuesday, we will talk find out what happens when we reach the North Pole.