Jonathan Cassidy Legare shouts at The Polar Express
It’s that time of year again! Time to max out all your credit cards, get loaded with a mix of dairy products and booze, and, finally and most importantly, watch stop-action cartoons from the 1960s. Armed with a rummy, curdly concoction, we pile unnecessary praise onto those vaguely racist abominations and call them classics. Now don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas. It’s one of my favourite days to be dragged out of bed, hungover, at 6:45 a.m., to choke down a huge breakfast that I will later puke up while the womenfolk make more breakfast that I will later choke down and puke up again, while the womenfolk subsequently clean up both the remaining food and vomit. As it is, as it has always been.
That narrative and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer hail from about the same era, give or take a few decades. That was the era, let me remind you, when both institutionalized sexism and stop-motion animation were in vogue. Lamentably (kidding, but only about one of the following statements!) both women’s rights and animation have progressed. And today, one of these advancements is to thank for:
The Polar Express.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched this movie three times in a single day with the third-grade students I teach in South Korea. In the spirit of this Thought Out Loud series, there was a lot of shouting: they were shouting, I was shouting, they were bowing respectably after I shouted or I was shouting more to encourage greater respect and bowing, I was towering over them and trying to decide which of their movie snacks I would steal. It was a Christmas miracle, made more magical by the inclusion of the Tom Hanks/Tom Hanks/Tom Hanks joint production flashing on screen.
The Polar Express starts with an important message for kids, one contrary to the one our parents always told us: when a strange moustachioed man asks you to get into his vehicle, you get in his vehicle. This is especially important when the vehicle isn’t a van, and when that conductor is running late. The creepy moustachioed Socrates quickly proves to be a valuable resource for children, spouting gems like: “Sometimes seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things cannot be seen.” Had any of my third graders spoken English, they might have been touched by the film’s sense of wonder; me, a prematurely bitter old man, quickly identified it as a steaming pile of reindeer poop and yelled “Don’t believe anything this man says, kids! He’s lied to Jonathan-teacher before!”
Luckily, there are more gems of worldly wisdom for young children in this movie, though. For instance, when a grisly hobo meets you on the top of a train and offers you a piggyback ride while skiing on the roof, you better goddamn well accept it, too. Oh wait, that hobo has turned into an angel, and gets crushed in a tunnel. Life is all disappointment and heartbreak, kids, and then you’re left alone on the roof of a train.
Fortunately, just as in real life, each minor disappointment in the movie is followed by the sudden appearance of another version of Tom Hanks. And, again as in life, there are four versions of male role models in The Polar Express: the guy who drives you around (Apollo 13); the skinny guy who may be dead or dying (Philadelphia); the father of a non-believing troublemaker who tries but fails to give his life for a greater, nobler cause (Joe Versus the Volcano); and an old a man with a beard who lives by himself and talks to creatures that the rest of us can’t see (Castaway).
But it’s not all about portraying appropriate father figures! No! There are other lessons that an old man like me can take away. For one: how to get a free return trip to the North Pole on a train that constantly falls apart. It isn’t by writing letters to Santa or by visiting Ol’ Saint Nick at the mall, like I did every year until I was 24. No, it’s by going to bed early and doing nothing to help your family on Christmas Eve. Just have your younger sister put out the milk and cookies so you won’t have to damage your gift-opening hands, and get some shut-eye!
Then, when you finally get to the North Pole, you join in an unsupervised bloodbath with other lazy kids who don’t help around the house! The reward for their curiosity and bravery? Santa gives them a bell! Ha ha! You coulda hada PS3, jerks, or at the very least a Woody cowboy doll, but you screwed up, turned your back on adult supervision, and got a bell. It’s not even a new bell! It’s a used one, and when you go to show it to other people they’re going to think it’s broken! Now you look insane too! So, for not following the rules, Santa sentences you to a life of insanity. Good one, Santa!
The only thing worse would have been a copy of Larry Crowne on DVD.
“Do you understand that, kids?!” I’m now yelling at my class. “Wonder and curiosity will only bring you dementia and loneliness! Stop asking questions!”
And Merry Christmas.