Friday, December 18, 2009

"Tinsel" Town - Cinema Symbolism

Okay, so I’m a symbolism junkie. I look for it in places most people wouldn’t put out the trash. Funny thing is, a lot of times I find it. I mean, I learned a valuable and timely life lesson watching The Mist, a horror/thriller movie based on a Stephen King novel.

Really, I did.

And then of course, I’ve shared some thoughts on a certain vampire saga (see sidebar).

I know I make stretches and leaps many are not willing or interested in taking. That’s cool. I’ve accepted that I’m out there, though I cherish the times I have company.

But when it came to 2004’s The Polar Express, a breakthrough animation based on Chris Van Allsburg’s classic children’s book, I thought I’d be in more of a crowd. I was shocked to read certain critics’ warnings to steer clear, beware of Santa worship.

Really? That’s what they got out of this amazing movie?

I have a… different… point of view I’d like to share.

I see The Polar Express as a picture of the battle between Faith and Doubt.

It asks the big question in life – will you believe, or will you not?

Of course, believe what is paramount, but we’re not really talking about Santa here.

Or we don’t have to be.

Not everyone experiences a crisis during life strong enough to shake their faith, but I think it’s safe to say that most of us, at some point in life, have contended with doubt.

God, are You real? Are you really who You say You are?

Speaking symbolically (of course), that’s the question the boy in the blue robe, our main character known only as Hero Boy, asks at the beginning of The Polar Express. Doubt has come calling this Christmas, and the evidence seems to be mounting up - the jingle bell he hears is on a stocking hat in his father’s back pocket, no gifts sit under the tree, the cookies and milk stand uneaten on the coffee table, and he’s got damning journal articles hidden in his dresser. His expectations have dwindled to the point of being certain Santa will not show up, even though it hurts him to think so.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve encountered situations in life, more than one actually, that have made me feel the same way. What I see is just too convincing, too tangibly painful to believe that anything could change, let alone believe in miracles.

But a miracle does happen that night in Hero Boy’s life. A locomotive shows up in his front yard, a scheduled stop just for him, and an invitation to ride the Polar Express to the North Pole. Yet, he hesitates. The conductor shrugs and quips, “Suit yourself.” Getting on the train is entirely Hero Boy’s choice. He must accept the invitation for himself.

In the end, desperation wins. He wants to find the Truth.

So starts his journey of faith and discovery.

It’s a voyage wrought with excitement (with jazz hands, everybody, Hot Chocolate!), fellowship (he is not alone), struggle (lost tickets, bad weather, roller-coaster-like grades and speed), setbacks (sometimes Caribou cross the tracks), peril (trains are not supposed to snake about trackless on sheets of ice like that!), and outright opposition – a force actively working to keep the Truth a mystery – its name is Doubt (the Hobo riding atop the cars).

The seed has already been planted inside Hero Boy (i.e. his parents whispering about the end of the magic), causing him to question everything. He demands, “Are you sure?” every time he or his companions face a choice. “Are you sure you’re allowed in the back car?... Are you sure this lever is the break?... Are you sure you’re going the right way?”

The Hobo fuels his fears and stokes deception during their conversation on the car top:

Hobo: I’m the King of the North Pole!

Hero Boy: What about Santa? Isn’t he the King of the North Pole?

Hobo: You mean this guy? (puts on Santa hat and mocks) Ho ho ho!

What exactly is your persuasion on the Big Man, since you brought him up?

Hero Boy: Well, I… I want to believe… but…

Hobo: But you don’t want to be bamboozled. You don’t want to be led down the primrose path! You don’t want to be conned or duped. Have the wool pulled over your eyes. Hoodwinked! You don’t want to be taken for a ride. Railroaded! Seeing is believing. Am I right?

Hero Boy: What about this train?

Hobo: What about it?

Hero Boy: We’re all going to the North Pole… aren’t we?

Hobo: Aren’t we?

Hero Boy: Are you saying that this is all a dream?

Hobo: You said it, kid, not me.

Doubt butts in every time Hero Boy leans toward faith.

Still, Hero Boy wavers back and forth, partly because of positive influences – the conductor (who asks the right kinds of questions) and the girl known as Hero Girl, who’s already founded in her faith. (This journey has a different purpose for her.) Also, Billy, the poor boy who spends most of his time in the back car alone, inspires in a back door kind of way. Hero Boy has a tender heart, and reaching out to Billy helps shape his own convictions. In fact, Hero Boy helps Hero Girl convince Billy to go with them to the square to see Santa.

Another lifetime of adventure occurs in the short span of time they are in the North Pole city. I could splice every scene, phrase, word, but of course that would take up way too much space and time.

The thing that touches me most during this part, though, is the moment Billy’s faith sparks into a flame. The kids stumble upon one last present on its way to Santa’s big, red bag. It’s marked for a boy named Billy (My name’s Billy, he declares with surprise), a certain address (That’s my address!!). Once he knows it’s his, he goes after it, catches it in his arms, and does not let go. Reminds me of Jacob wrestling God for a blessing – holding on despite personal injury. (Gen. 32:22-32)

As soon as Billy gets the chance, he shakes his gift to guess what’s in it, and then, without actually seeing it, exclaims, “I think I know what it is! I’ve wanted one of these my whole life!”

Billy’s new faith is tested quickly, however, because one, there’s a sticker that says Do not open until Christmas, and two, the elves insist he give it back to put in Santa’s bag. Billy has to believe that gift will show up under his tree at home at the appointed time even though his experience has convinced that “Christmas just doesn’t work out” for him. It’s a huge leap of faith to entrust Santa with the gift that is already his… but not yet.

Been there? Have you been waiting for an answer to prayer for what seems like your whole life? Do you wonder if God has forgotten or changed His mind, or if you’ve done something to mess up your chances of ever receiving that promise?

I’m there right now. So watching Billy arrive home, see the evidence that Santa has already been to his house, and find his gift, holding it high and shouting at the top of his lungs as testimony that his faith was rewarded, makes me smile and tear up… every time.

So what about Hero Boy? Did he find what he sought? Did his faith ignite?

I’m breathless every time I watch the scene in the square, the jubilant anticipation of the appearance of the man, all the elves cheering, the reindeer prancing, everyone from the train wide-eyed and standing on tip-toe and smiling… except for Hero Boy – because he can not hear the sleigh bells ringing. Still. Even after all he experienced.

And it devastates him. His expression breaks my heart as he cries, “I can’t see him! I can’t see him!”

Do you ever feel like that? Like everyone around you cheers, prances, smiles, celebrates because The One has shown up, but you still sit there holding pain and doubt and problems crying “I can’t see Him”?

This is what you do… the same as Hero Boy… when you can’t do anything else no matter what’s going on around you… you stop, close your eyes, and say out loud with as much faith as you can muster (even if it’s the size of a mustard seed Luke 17:6), “Okay. Okay. I believe. I believe. I believe!”

And the same thing that happened to Hero Boy will happen to you. The One will appear right beside you and ask, “What was that you said?” And, wide-eyed and in awe, you’ll repeat, “I believe.” Then The One will invite you to His throne (represented here by the sleigh), put His arm around your shoulder and ask you directly, “What would you like?” (Matt. 7:8).

Hero Boy receives the first gift of Christmas, significant for two reasons. First, Santa tells him that the bell he’s asked for, and can now hear, is a symbol of the Christmas spirit, adding that he, Santa, is as well. (To me, that’s pretty clear… Santa is a symbol, not the object of worship. Anywho…) Second, it recalls to my mind the actual first gift of Christmas, Jesus, God, born into human flesh to be the atoning sacrifice for my sins.


Here’s the thing about The Polar Express – it contains layers and layers and layers of meaning pertaining to our walk of Faith. I’ve gone too long already, but haven’t even touched on the significance of the golden tickets and the words the conductor punches into them, the significance of time, the difference between (jazz hands, please) hot chocolate and the Hobo’s cup of joe, the canned Christmas music that sometimes skips, the test Hero Boy undergoes almost immediately after finding his faith (Matt. 13:1-43), his conclusion about belief, and many, many other noteworthy snippets.

I recommend watching this movie – for the fun of it, of course – but also to gain perspective and encouragement on your journey with the Lord.

Have you decided yet to get on the train? Has Doubt bullied you? Have a herd of caribou crossed your tracks and caused an unscheduled stop? Are you the know-it-all kid who needs to learn patience and humility? Are you Billy, convinced that Christmas doesn’t work out for you?

Have you spoken the words, “I believe”?

Can you hear the bell?

(photos by


LynnRush said...

Great post. Now, I haven't seen them movie yet, but when I do, I'll watch it through wide-open eyes.

Happy Friday, Lori!