Hello and welcome to A Substream Christmas! In a strange year, when we can all use a holiday pick-me-up, our staff has picked some of their favorite Christmas movies. There will be a different offering in which each person will discuss how much each movie means to them.

The Polar Express, as a story, is widely regarded as a Christmas classic. The 2004 film, however, sparks more of a debate. Growing up, I watched plenty of established holiday classics: Home Alone, A Christmas Story, etc. But these movies are a little older; older family members had already seen them and decided they were worthy. I liked them not only because they were good, but because I was told to. In the winter of 2004 and subsequent years, there was a buzz surrounding The Polar Express. It was new, magical, and exciting. Tickets could be purchased for various Polar Express rides and attractions. There was a seasonal Sea World ride. Some schools put on Polar Express Christmas parties where kids could wear pajamas and were served hot chocolate. Under the tree one year, I found a DVD box set complete with a sleigh bell from Santa’s very own sleigh. 

After a recent rewatching, there are some flaws. The animation has become dated and is even sometimes a little creepy. The entire movie feels like a long cut scene in a video game. And yet, it’s charming. It will always hold a special place in my heart as a Christmas movie that I formed my own opinion about. And even if that opinion has shifted slightly over the years, there are plenty of things that make The Polar Express stand out.For example, most of the characters don’t actually have names. The film’s protagonist is simply referred to as “Hero Boy” in the credits. This only makes it easier for children to project themselves onto these characters, whether it be the uncertain yet brave Hero Boy, the kind-hearted Hero Girl, the enthusiastic Know-It-All, or the shy Lonely Boy.

Throughout the film, the few main characters go through events on the way to the North Pole that illustrate some of the most classic holiday themes, such as bravery, honesty, and friendship. But unlike many other feel-good Christmas-y movies, The Polar Express dares to go deeper. It explores some heavier themes like hard decision-making, class inequality, and even mortality. Despite being a family movie, The Polar Express is, in some moments, dark and scary. The movie also puts an interesting (and somewhat disturbing) twist on aspects of Santa Claus lore. When the children arrive at the North Pole, they stumble across a room full of elves watching hundreds of screens broadcasting the faces of sleeping children. A loud alarm goes off, signs that read “naughty” flash, and a recording of a little boy saying, “I didn’t do it,” is played over and over. Angry-sounding elves debate the boy’s right to receive any Christmas presents that year.

This is contrasted by Hero Boy’s own actions throughout the movie. He makes plenty of mistakes and breaks many rules, from losing another passenger’s ticket to pulling the train’s emergency break. Yet, in the end, Hero Boy is rewarded for these actions because he does them with good intentions.

After a rather bizarre elf party scene featuring Steven Tyler as an Elf Lieutenant, the film gets back to the true meaning of Christmas. Hero Boy and his friends get to go home and find presents under the tree the next morning, perhaps wondering if it was all a dream. But Hero Boy finds his sleigh bell and is able to hear it, meaning he is a true believer in Santa, while his parents cannot. The melancholy tone of this scene makes you afraid of the day you will stop believing in Christmas magic — even if that day has already come.

While The Polar Express is somewhat unconventional, it still delivers all the themes and feelings that a holiday movie should. In the end, it leaves you filled with wonder and nostalgia; it makes you excited to give and receive. And it probably leaves a cringe-worthy yet catchy song stuck in your head, too.