“Death is nothing compared to the Polar Express (2004).” – Jean Paul Sartre
Welcome back. I did a bit of research after last week’s post and found out that, yes, there are people who love to nitpick more than I do:
The whole section is fantastic, take a read when you get a chance.
So, I’m gonna be honest. My daughter loves this movie and we watch it all the time. I’ve seen this hundreds, nay, thousands of times since Joanna and I have been married. I still have a really hard time piecing together what happens in the second half of the movie. The whole movie is a mess, don’t get me wrong, but this second half has little to no cohesion. It’s just random events tied together by the fact that they happen at the North Pole. Sort of like Almost, Maine by John Cariani, but a thousand times worse.
Let’s dive in.
When we last left our intrepid “heroes,” they were singing a song as they pull up to the North Pole. Tom Hanks (Conductor) cries because he is so excited that they made it in time. He takes his hat off and we discover that… HE’S BALD! Comedic genius. GENIUS. He also informs the kids that Santa will be giving out the first gift of Christmas to one of them. Then, a chubby boy dressed as a cowboy stands up and points his finger out the window. What could he be pointing to, dear reader? Well, ELVES! (This is my absolute favorite part of the movie, unironically) Sidenote: I just learned, during my research, that his name is officially “Gus, the Toothless Boy” and I really don’t know how to feel about it.
After everyone gets off the train, the Conductor lines them up in height order, odd numbered birthdays, and randomly. The Know-It-All is like “Bruh, it’s still 5 to midnight like it has been fore an hour” and the Conductor just points at him and yells “EXACTLY” and shuts his pocketwatch. Now, I think it’s a valid questions, but who am I? So, Billy, HG, and HB are somehow on the last train car and it gets unhooked from the rest of the train, sending it careening through the North Pole. They’re all like “OH SHIT” and try to find a way to stop it. What does HB immediately think to do?
Pull the goddamn emergency brake.
Apparently, the e-brake is on the back of the train and is a wheel (???). The car screeches to a halt in one of those turntable things I saw in Thomas the Tank Engine. Now, this is a platform that is raised over a bottomless pit, a la the hand losing scene in Empire Strikes Back, so what do our three geniuses decide to do? Just casually walk across the tracks IN SLIPPERS. What are they following? The sound of tinkling bells that only HG and Billy can hear. Apparently only true believers can hear the bells.
Which brings me to my biggest gripe about this movie. If only true believers can hear the bells and everyone besides HB can hear them, why were they on the Polar Express? The Polar Express is to take doubters to visit the big man so he can make them an offer they can’t refuse. None of them should be able to hear it. They are both believers and non-believers. I call this the Polar Paradox or Schrodinger’s Train.
Anyway, at this point, the overhead music, which is playing 1950’s Christmas tunes, starts skipping and repeating the same bit over and over again. I can hear it in my head as I type. The worst is when Joanna puts on the Polar Express soundtrack (arguably the best part of this whole godforsaken movie) and, when this song plays, it DOESN’T repeat or skip, I start to feel as if that aneurysm is finally going to burst and free me from this Polar Express we call life. It was an INCREDIBLY odd choice in an already odd movie.
Eventually they end up in the command center, Naughty or Nice HQ or something. These elves are dressed like French Naval commanders from the late 18th century. Suddenly, the candy cane phone rings. A little boy is being naughty. He put gum in his sister’s hair. The General looks at the phone. He knows he has this boy’s life in his hands. Will he destroy his Christmas or will the pity buried deep inside the elf finally come free, allowing him a brief respite from the pain of his job, the pain of always saying Naughty or Nice with no nuance, no second chances, no joy, no sorrow, just a choice. Naughty. Or Nice. He picks up the phone, a heavy breath on his lips. One word and Santa will bring the coal. One word and his night ends in a tragedy. He holds the phone… And sets it in its cradle, relief evident on his elven shoulders. “It’s Christmas,” he says, eyes bloodshot from a night of too much whiskey and not enough spirit. “It’s Christmas,” he repeats to himself, softly, and he begins to walk to the pneumatic tube that will take them to the town square. The square where he can feel the icy wind upon his face as if for the first time. The square where he can ponder his life, his rank, his attitude. For, tomorrow, he dons his hat and goes back at it. But tonight? Tonight is for celebration.
The kids are like “COOL TUBE” and hop in. HG pushes the wrong button and takes them to the present transfer department. Somehow, Billy’s present is the last one to go through and he’s like “Uh, that’s mine” and jumps after it. The other two are like “I hope he doesn’t get crushed to death” and chase after him. They slide down this giant transport slide and land in Santa’s sleigh which, thankfully, is filled with presents. Had they not been there, the kids would have fallen fifty feet headfirst to their death. Sidenote: The presents at the bottom of this massive pile are probably crushed. Maybe not because magic.
The bag is pulled up around them and attached to two balloons. Giant balloons, by the way. They then travel across the city to the town square. But wait! Fear! Something has a hold on Billy! His foot sinks slowly into the present bag. He grasps his present. His friends try to pull him up, but he is stuck tight. “Let go of the present!” they yell. “Up yours!” he yells back. Eventually, he pops out and the Know-It-All was grabbing onto his leg. He got stuck in the bag while looking for his presents. All he got was some stupid underwear.
So, they fly over the big Christmas tree in the middle of the square and knock the star off. These elves jump down and get it, almost killing one elf in the process. He was centimeters from being impaled by the star. What a way to go. Then the Conductor is like “See, they’re a well oiled machine!” Excuse me? Did you not see the potential devastation they may have caused due to the star? If it was well oiled, that wouldn’t have happened in the first place! Anyway, some Bill Burr looking elf gets the kids out of the bag and they go back to their group.
The reindeer are brought out and everyone is freaking the hell out over these bells that HB still can’t hear. Then, one flies off the harness and lands at his feet. He grabs it and shakes it by his head. Nothing. He closes his eyes and says “I believe”, shakes it again and hears the bell. HE OBVIOUSLY DOESN’T BELIEVE so I am led to assume these bells are voice activated.
Then, the square goes quiet. Silence descends upon the crowd. It is time. The Claus has arrived. They start singing, in unison, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and it is the most haunting thing I ever heard. If they played this in a haunted house, I would turn right around and leave. Santa Claus (played by Tom Hanks) comes out to meet the kids. He talks to Billy, the poor kid from the other side of the tracks who just wants someone to care for him and has done nothing bad except follow HB. He talks to Know-It-All, the insufferable nerd with a pure heart and thirst for knowledge. He talks to HG, charismatic but not confident even though she led the group to safety.
Then he gets to HB. The boy who wants to take over the North Pole. The boy who has done nothing but screw up the trip for everyone. The boy who doesn’t believe. The boy who is just the freaking worst. The boy who is privileged beyond belief.
Santa chooses to give HIM the first gift of Christmas. I am FURIOUS over this decision. This cements in my mind that this is all just an elaborate hoax that HB’s dad set up to get him to believe in Christmas. This kid should be on the naughty list for life. Shit, he should probably be on a no-fly list as well because he is a threat to us all. Anyway, Santa gives him the bell and is on his way. Then the elves party.
The cover image for this post is the terrifying visage of Aerosmith frontman, Steven Tyler, but as an elf. I’m not putting in another picture because it’s just that bad. The kids file back onto the Polar Express. They crowd around HB to see the gift when he discovers, in a final eff you to his passengers, that he “lost it” due to a hole in his pocket. The absolute prick.
When he gets home, the Conductor says one of the DUMBEST things from the movie: “Funny thing about trains. It doesn’t matter where they’re goin’. What matters is deciding to get on.” UH, yeah, it does matter where the train is going. It’s a VERY important part of deciding to get on the train. “All aboard the train to Hangnail Valley, home of the perpetual hangnail!” I’m not getting on that train because the destination is terrible. It seems like he’s speaking about a very specific train (The Polar Express, in case you didn’t get it).
Suddenly, the boy awakes on Christmas day. He pulls his robe from the bedpost and rips the pocket. His marbles fall out. It must have all been a dream. But, he finds a present under the tree that is wrapped in a small box. He opens it and a card falls out from “Mr. C”. Inside the box is the bell. HB’s dad (played by Tom Hanks) picks it up and shakes it. He hears nothing. Then, future HB (played by Tom Hanks) starts narrating in a voice so quiet that even subtitles don’t pick it up, so I have no clue what he says.
Josh Groban starts singing. Fin.
Look, if you like this movie, I’m glad. I’m happy for you. However, it’s not a good movie and I NEED you to understand that. I am exhausted after thinking this hard about such a bad movie, so I’m going to stop here. Thanks for reading my ramblings. Happy Holidays.