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‘The Polar Express’ Broke Me

When he was about four years old, my son latched onto 'The Polar Express' and made us watch it over and over and over. I tried to like it. I really did.

Warner Bros

When he was about four years old, my son latched onto the movie The Polar Express and made us watch it over and over and over and over and over and over until the day that the DVD, and — this is a true story — jumped out of the player and asked for a drink. When Christmas rolled around, we watched The Polar Express. In the middle of July, we watched The Polar Express. Bedtime stories, songs in the car, make-believe in the backyard, Polar Polar train train train. One night, my sleepwalking son got out of bed, stumbled downstairs, opened the sliding back porch door, and wandered outside; two neighbors found him at 1:30 a.m. in his PJs a quarter-mile away. Three guesses what he told us he was looking for.

In short, I’ve had nearly a decade of polar exposure, and frankly I’ve been waiting for the years to soften my objection, to make me start thinking, “Enh, this isn’t so bad!” like I did with The Phantom Menace and Taylor Swift and Honda Odysseys. But you know what? It never happened. The movie is still a creepers death-ride through an Arctic hellscape, and it continues to make me want to scream, tear my hair out, and throw around Salvation Army buckets.

I’ve been waiting for the years to soften my objection, to make me start thinking, “Enh, this isn’t so bad!” like I did with ‘The Phantom Menace’ and Taylor Swift and Honda Odysseys. But you know what? It never happened.

Which is not to say The Polar Express is the planet’s only jacked-up Christmas movie; some of America’s most consistently beloved examples of family entertainment include a cartoon about the relentless emotional abuse of the neighborhood’s most fragile child, a film about a tween who’s obsessed with getting a gun, and a Claymation special nightmare in which the lovable protagonist forcibly yanks out the bad guy’s teeth. There’s also Frosty the Snowman, a beloved children’s character who’s gonna die in, like, three days.

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But as bonkers Christmas movies go, The Polar Express remains the topper. It was made by computers and Tom Hanks plays everybody and it still cost $165 million, most of which apparently went to seeing how many talking metaphors could be shoved into a minimalist children’s book. The book on which the movie is based, is a quiet meditation on Christmas magic and makes you want to drink hot chocolate; the movie promotes the notion that if a strange man comes to your house on an illogical locomotive in the black of night demanding you ride his train to some unspecified destination, the only reasonable course of action is to get right on that train.

The fundamental rejection of stranger danger is the film’s first problem; the second involves a pretty cavalier approach to unsupervised children on mass transit. “One thing about trains,” the bendable Hanksbot says, very seriously, “doesn’t matter where they’re going, what matters is deciding to get on” — as though you won’t remotely get near the nice list without boarding random vehicles without considering the destination, which is really only something you might do if you were a hobo in 1921. It entirely matters where the train is going! What if the train’s going to Justice League, or Burning Man? When was the last time you were at Penn Station like, “Surprise me!”

As for Santa, he’s a pompous snooze box who makes 40,000 elves gather for his majestic entrance and then promptly ignores all of them to talk to some kid for 10 minutes.

I could do this all Christmas season: This movie features an angry hobo-ghost who sleeps in the wheels and washes his socks in coffee; there’s a car full of shrieking puppet corpses; the North Pole is clearly an Arctic sweatshop staffed by unpleasant elf worker drones (one of whom is Steven Tyler) who greet Santa’s appearance with pretty delirious enthusiasm, considering they see him every morning. As for Santa, he’s a pompous snooze box who makes 40,000 elves gather for his majestic entrance and then promptly ignores all of them to talk to some kid for 10 minutes. (The elves spend 365 making toys for everyone on Earth; Santa kicks off Christmas by saying, “Here’s a broken bell that fell off my car.”)

Oh, and let’s not forget that, once the kids are back home, there’s a scene where a present arrives that neither parent recognizes, and it contains a note from a “Mr. C” advising a kid to fix a hole in his pocket and no one is the slightest bit horrified by this.

Also, there’s the film’s ostensible message, which is that if you’re an eight-year-old kid who is having trouble believing in Santa, you should totally believe in Santa, who is a lie. So I’m really not sure what the message is, but I suspect it’s something about Aerosmith. Look, I’m all for Christmas magic. Let’s just have a little less spectral weirdness, and maybe some cleaner socks.