Tom Hanks made my child cry

Alternate title: Polar Express: A great book made into an evil movie

Movie rating: on a scale of 1 to 5:  0

Photo of the train conducter, the boy main character and a young female friend with their mouths open expressing shear terror.

This is what you look like when you're clutching a rail at the front of a locomotive as it plummets at full speed down an impossible 90 degree free-fall in near total darkness.

I’m behind on pop culture, so it was only last Thursday that I read Polar Express to my 5-year-old daughter. It was wonderful. I highly recommend the book. Plaudits all around.

It’s about a magical train that stops in front of a boy’s house on Christmas Eve. He boards it and discovers the train cars are filled with children eating candy on their way to see Santa at the North Pole. Once there, Santa picks the boy to receive the first gift of Christmas, and he chooses a bell from one of Santa’s reindeer.

Alas, the boy loses the bell and returns home saddened. Christmas morning he finds the bell wrapped under the Christmas tree. It rings loud and true to him, but his parents cannot hear it because (and this point is veiled, not obvious to young readers) — the parents don’t hear the bell because they don’t believe.

Good, clean family fear

Come Saturday, I bought the DVD for our family movie night thinking it’ll be a classic we’ll watch every year. I recall it receiving rave reviews in the press. Little did I know that author Chris Van Allsburg had sold his soul to the devil Tom Hanks.

I single Tom Hanks out because he plays six highly recognizable characters in the film. Without Hanks, I see someone else making this movie, perhaps someone interested in telling an innocently sweet story.

Ho, ho, holy molly this movie is a train wreck. It’s nothing short of a sadistic experiment to see how many gallons of fluid can be meted from the tear ducts of young fans of the book.

The film begins auspiciously with an Edward Scissorhands-style musical score filled with wonder. The computer animation is fantastic. The whole thing has a dreamlike quality. Pure joy.

It’s all just a setup to lull youngsters into thinking they are embarking on 100 minutes of fun. Wait, 100 minutes for a 30 page book with minimal words? Yeah, they fill in the 100 minutes with shear terror.

You could say they stray from the original story a little.

First our young male hero climbs onto the roof of the speeding train, in the frozen snowy darkness. It’s all played for fear. He’s terrified. There in the darkness he encounters a creepy, weird hobo who later turns out to be a ghost.

The boy slips and hangs onto the edge of the roof by one hand for a while, then the train plummets downhill at breakneck speeds — while the boy skis uncontrollably forward with the hobo — toward a tunnel with a ceiling so low it will kill him if he doesn’t get down off the train’s roof in time. His face actually stretches from the G-forces he’s submitted to on the downhill slide.

Photo of a young boy hanging onto the edge of the roof of the last car of a train speeding through snowy darkness.

Remember, you've got to not fall off the train, then ski your way to the front of the train and get inside the engine before you reach the tunnel that has an opening shaped like a dragon with razor-sharp teeth. No, this isn't a video game (yet?).

The rest is a blur. They repeatedly treat the train like a roller coaster, up and down, the train’s brakes go out and so forth. None of this is ever portrayed as fun like a real roller coaster… the characters are terrified.

Anyhow, the train skids across a frozen lake. The entire train almost falls into the lake as it speeds away from a huge crack in the ice that is chasing them. As they slide, Hanks shouts “Left!” and “Right” from the rooftop as direction because they need to slide through a narrow opening in a rocky cliff at the edge of the lake where the train track resumes. Miss just a little and the train will explode into the mountainside and then sink in the lake.

What next?

“Hey, let’s fill one of the train cars with used toys Santa is going to refurbish. Now, how can I make this scene scary?” –How I imagine the screenwriter approached his task.

Even in Santa’s wonderland there is terror to be found — a runaway train car, a high-wire walk by the boy and other children from the train, sliding down a 10-story-tall funnel and a humongous Christmas tree tropper that plummets toward a public square filled with elves that will surely kill them if something isn’t done. And so on.

In the beginning of the film, my wife and I tried to play up a fun angle to the terror. “Weee!  It’s like the roller coaster at the county fair!” Umm, no. She was having none of it.

“I don’t want to watch this.”

She said that whenever I was slow with the remote control. We fast-forwarded through half the film.

Image of a giant star Christmas tree topper falling toward a crowded square filled with elves.

This was one of the more delightful terror scenes. A giant Christmas tree topper fell, almost killing thousands of Santa's elves assembled in a public square as they were awaiting Santa's arrival. It was delightful because the scene was over pretty quick.

I’m torn between wanting to toughen my daughter up a little and consoling her regarding her abject fear of the horrific scenes being imprinted in her psyche. And there’s the whole damn investment I made in talking up the idea of watching the movie of the book she loved and my hoping it might get better in a few minutes.

In case you’re wondering, the film is rated G.

Love me, hate me

The weird part, the really weird part, is that every time the kids save themselves from certain death, the auspicious wonder-filled musical score starts back up and we’re supposed to marvel at the Northern Lights, a duet sung in the moonlight, the sight of Santa’s city or Santa’s grand arrival.

It’s like the cycle of domestic violence where a woman alternates between being hugged and punched in the face. WTF are you doing to my child Tom Hanks?

No, wait, I know what it’s like. It’s like remaking Old Yeller, but instead of having a lovely story with a few tears when the dog dies at the end, they decide to kill the dog every 10 minutes.

Yeah, woo, look at the pretty pictures. I would enjoy them more if my underwear wasn’t soiled.

Santa’s first gift of Christmas

And, hey, the main character acquired two friends on the train. One of his new friends has never had Christmas “work out for him.” He doesn’t mean Santa keeps giving him the wrong gifts. Either his parents have never given him a gift, or he is in a neglectful foster home, or who knows what. The kid is depressed, and depressing.

Whatever abuse he has endured in life totally makes him deserving of being selected by Santa to receive the first gift of Christmas. It’s actually a let down when the bland, normal main character is picked for no other reason than he was standing in front of Santa at the time.

We’re never given a reason to sympathize or root for the main character. His two friends on the train, though, are a victim and a courageous leader. We want to see those two succeed. Hey Santa, give ‘em all a reindeer bell and new underwear you cheapskate. Why did you haul all these kids to the North Pole in the first place? For your own vanity, because you wanted to make a grand entrance?

Seriously, Santa shows up and then the kids get sent home empty-handed.

The one nice part of the film, the one tiny magical part where Santa takes off in his sleigh to deliver gifts around the world, even that was soiled when the camera abruptly shifted to a rock ‘n’ roll Christmas carol led by an elf modeled after Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. WTF?! Again!!! This is not a Disney film staring Robin Williams!

By all means, don’t believe

The book was about the joy of the magical world of Santa Claus.

The movie’s intended message is different — about kids who struggle with belief. The main character is questioning whether Santa is real, and by having the movie harp on this element of disbelief it directly introduces to children that there is reason to disbelieve.

If you want your kid to stop believing in Santa, definitely show him this film.

I will be very lucky if my daughter lets me read the book to her again. Thank you Tom Hanks for ruining Christmas. You unbelievable bastard.


31 Responses to “Tom Hanks made my child cry”

  1. Jeanne says:

    Thanks for this. You’ve convinced me to check out the book. I hated the movie so much and thought the book must be as much of a disappointment. (You forgot that the “nerd” is the only kid not voiced by a child and that all the characters are in that terrifying “uncanny valley”. I disagree that it’s beautiful; art requires some degree of imagination, they tried to get too close to real faces.)

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who dislikes this movie.

    December 7th, 2009 at 5:07 am

  2. Rhonda says:

    We love the book. I haven’t watched the entire movie, but caught a little bit of it on t.v. after my 4 year old twins were already in bed. The part I saw was terrifying and I know my girls would have nightmares for weeks. I’m horrible disappointed in how a lovely book is ruined on the big screen.

    December 7th, 2009 at 6:24 am

  3. P.A. says:

    I agree. This movie, which I’ve seen, will never be viewed in my house. I believe they could have made a beautiful movie out of this book and will never understand why they went in the direction they did.

    December 7th, 2009 at 6:33 am

  4. reba says:

    humh my son saw this when he was 3ish he was staring at the tv with, what i thought at the time, was and open mouth sense of awe and wonder…but now i think he may have been to afraid to move….i never looked at it that way at all :( it is kinda a horror show

    December 7th, 2009 at 7:35 am

  5. Maggie Burleson says:

    I hope you are playing some of this up to make a point. I don’t happen to agree with your point though.

    My son saw this movie last year at Christmas when he was almost 3. He LOVED it. He fondly refers to it as train movie. We’ve watched it all year long. He can empathize with Billy without being depressed by him. I’m pretty sure that’s an important skill rather than not exposing our children to people who might be depressing. I also think it’s important for kids to see that people can struggle with a belief and work out for themselves what to think.

    He really loves the music in it as well. He will sing the polar express song, the rockin on top of the world part that Steven Tyler sings and he loves the beautiful Josh Grobin song at the end.

    I’m sorry it scared your daughter, but I don’t think that means there is anything wrong with the movie. Just not her personal taste. But that doesn’t make it evil.

    December 7th, 2009 at 7:49 am

  6. AJ says:

    No Maggie, I’m pretty sure the film is pure evil. Look for the sequel, Polar Damnation, where Santa returns as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, along with the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy and Mr. Whipple, to wreak destruction upon the world. Except, they’re riding reindeer instead of horses. Leave it to Hollywood to stray from the storyline.

    December 7th, 2009 at 8:01 am

  7. Maggie Burleson says:

    I guess the only point I’ll be able to agree with you on is hating it when Hollywood changes the story. There is nothing like a good book and sometimes they change things when there is no reason. But as for the rest of it, I’ll have to file it under one of those posts where I think you just come off as self righteous.

    December 7th, 2009 at 8:24 am

  8. adrienne says:

    Polar damnation.


    Other than the Scholastic Treasury videos and Wonderworks films (old PBS show), most book adaptations should be viewed as highly suspect.

    I don’t like the book. The movie still sounds a 100 times worse.

    December 7th, 2009 at 8:34 am

  9. AJ says:

    Maggie, I played up the humor angle, but I truly believe this film was not made with young children in mind. I’ve encountered films inappropriate for my daughter before, but this one struck me as so wildly off-the-mark that it was inconceivable that it was ever made.

    I wish they had offered a second cut of the film on the DVD, one oriented toward children. Remove the terror scenes and you’d be left with the original literary story plus the boy’s new friends.

    December 7th, 2009 at 8:56 am

  10. Emily says:

    AJ, thank you for your review on Polar Express. We have not seen it, although it’s because we haven’t had an opportunity, rather than a conscious decision. After reading your review I realize my husband and I would definitely need to preview this movie before allowing our children to see it. It’s not something that’s high on my priority list, so we may never see it. But now I know if we don’t see it, we’re not missing anything. Thanks for sharing your experiences to help other parents in our endeavor raise our children in a safe environment. :-)

    December 7th, 2009 at 11:06 am

  11. AJ says:

    Reba, try asking your child now and then, “Do you understand what’s happening?” Between ages 4 and 5, my daughter often hasn’t understood complex scenes, but will sit and watch and never say anything unless I ask. She understood the fear she saw on the actors’ faces in Polar Express though.

    Kids can easily be mesmerized by moving images on a 2-dimensional plane because their brains have been wired to interact with other people in a 3-dimensional world (assuming they haven’t been inundated with video content from birth). But there is a learning curve to understanding a moving, voiced storyline that occurs in 2-D. It’s very different from comprehending a book being read by a parent.

    December 7th, 2009 at 12:24 pm

  12. Amy says:

    Thanks for preventing us from viewing this movie – we will pick up the book to read! This same thing just happened when I sent my 5-yr-old daughter to see “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” with her grandparents. She loves the book, but was terrified of the movie, and had nightmares after! Oh, what a bad mom I am! LOL!

    December 7th, 2009 at 2:29 pm

  13. Blair says:

    Last year our local mall had a Polar Express theme when you visited Santa. When you paid for your photos, there was an option to buy the Polar Express DVD. I did because I love the book and when I used to teach, we did an entire author study on Chris Van Allsburg which included activities based on this book.

    Fast forward to this year…

    After reading the book one afternoon to my kids, I remembered that we had the DVD. I decided to show it to them (ages 3). They were horrified! I was horrified! We turned it off, but I finished it after they were in bed. Never again will I show something without seeing it first. That was completely my mistake. I completely agree with your synopsis of the movie. It is nothing like the book.

    December 7th, 2009 at 4:25 pm

  14. Melissa says:

    The movie is never, ever, ever as good as the book.

    December 7th, 2009 at 6:01 pm

  15. Diana (Ladybug Limited) says:

    Wow, I know the movie is never as good as the book, but I hadn’t heard that this one was a total perversion of the book! As the mother of a very sensitive 6yo who probably would have been scarred for life if he had seen this unawares, thank you.

    December 7th, 2009 at 11:44 pm

  16. Can Can (Mom Most Traveled) says:

    I hate this movie, too!
    I haven’t read the book, actually. I hate the jerky Tom Hanks train clerk, the freaky hobo, and the hick train conductors.

    I wish Scholastic Storybook Treasures had done this instead.

    December 8th, 2009 at 5:00 am

  17. Elizabeth Wickoren says:

    Maybe the problem is that they rated it G and really should have rated it PG. Because I think it is a great movie for kids – not toddlers – but kids. My son saw it first when he was a couple weeks from turning 7 and he loved it. I could see how a three year old might be frightened though. But I appreciate movies like this because it allows kids to experience some of the action and adventure and thrills that they crave (at least my boys do) without all the violence and snarky toilet inappropriateness that other PG movies often do. While we haven’t seen it yet, I hear that the new “A Christmas Carol” animated movie is much like this. Scary ghosts and thrills, but nothing immoral. We plan on seeing that one too with the boys, but will leave our three year old girl at home. I think Polar Express isn’t a bad movie, it is just meant for a certain audience, and toddlers and preschoolers aren’t it.

    December 8th, 2009 at 7:32 am

  18. AJ says:

    I’m inclined to think a 3-year-old wouldn’t understand a lot of what he was seeing and hearing. It’s really easy to mistake silence for understanding. A 4- or 5-year-old who recognizes the danger and fear has a greater chance of being traumatized.

    December 8th, 2009 at 8:32 am

  19. Kimberly says:

    Yep my kid was scared too of the movie, we had to stop watching it until he went to bed. However, full disclosure my son also cried in Horton Hears a Who, when Horton fell my son was so worried he was hurt. We stopped watching that movie too.

    I’m pretty sure it is just weekday PBS shows for us for a while longer.

    December 8th, 2009 at 11:03 am

  20. AJ says:

    Ahh, nuts. Someone claiming to be Tom Hanks left a completely reasonable and seemingly informed comment here. If his e-mail address had checked out it would have definitely been Hanks. But no, my e-mail response bounced back as ‘user unknown.’ What a weird thing to be trolling us about.

    December 8th, 2009 at 11:16 am

  21. Nancy T. says:

    My 6 year old loves this movie, he saw it when he was 4 for the first time and we watch it every year. We haven’t watched it yet this year but he has asked for it, telling me the ticket is his favorite part – like it’s a character with its own story. I have the DVR set to record it this weekend and I’m curious to see if he, or my 3 year old, find the movie scary at all.

    December 8th, 2009 at 12:25 pm

  22. Ellen says:

    ABC Family showed it last week, and I thought my 3-year-old anything-train-related-loving son would like it. Holy cow, was I wrong. He was actually trembling at one point. I think we made it through about 15 minutes (boiled down to about 5 after fast-forwarding) when he tearfully asked if we could turn it off. I felt so bad! I guess it is time to start prescreening G and PG movies!

    December 8th, 2009 at 5:43 pm

  23. anjii says:

    My 2 year old loves it, and calls it “Christmas choo-choo show”. But I agree with AJ in the post about 2-3 year olds not understanding the danger involved. It’s definitely over his head for now.

    But my almost 5 year old, who is extremely aware, inquisitive and communicative, also LOVES it, despite his understanding of everything that’s going on. I agree with Elizabeth Wickoren’s point of view, which, for certain kids, this type of movie satisfies their cravings for action and adventure, without the age-innappropriate stuff. Wyatt’s friends at school and his cousins are all watching stuff like Transformers, Spiderman, Indiana Jones, etc…. and he wants to watch them too… NO WAY!!!!! But things like this, Narnia, Journey to the Center of the Earth, et. al. are things I can say yes to, and enjoy watching with him, without exposing him to language, adult content and ideas he doesn’t need to see. As for all those “hero” movies, I’m planning to rent and preview some of the cartoon versions, like Clone Wars, Transformers Animated, Justice League, etc. and see if they’re an appropriate outlet for him to watch that good guy/bad guy stuff he’s SO needing to explore right now.

    December 9th, 2009 at 1:05 am

  24. Sile says:

    I think the most important thing to remember is that just because a film is animated does not make it suitable for young children. After all, originally cartoons were created for adults.

    I definitely wouldn’t show most of the animated stuff out there now (including this movie) to a child under 10. Certainly not without first watching it myself. Most of the Disney classics aren’t even really “appropriate”. Of course, this also depends on the child. Different children have varying degrees of sensitivity, as we have seen from everyone else’s two cents.

    I know you expected the movie to be just like the book, but most movies tend to stray from original plots these days, so better safe than sorry.

    For those others who have decided to AVOID the movie, just watch it on your own and form your own opinion about it. Banning a movie from your house based on someone’s review of how it was inappropriate for their children is just silly. No offense, AJ. :)

    December 9th, 2009 at 8:34 am

  25. AJ says:

    My gut feeling is that the 4- and 5-year-olds who don’t get scared by the film have probably been exposed to more screen time than the scared ones. Meaning, the less experienced kids empathize more with the characters and the events seem more real to them.

    I couldn’t help notice that the parents who said their kids weren’t scared often also referenced a 3- or even a 2-year-old in the home not being scared. My daughter didn’t watch a film until after her 4th birthday, and even now, she usually only gets 30 minutes a week now at age 5.

    December 9th, 2009 at 8:51 am

  26. Elizabeth Wickoren says:

    In our house it was an almost seven year old, not a three or four or five year old, who liked the movie, so I think the maturity helped there. I don’t think it had anything to do with desensitizing for us though, just age, because we don’t watch TV on the weekdays at all and the majority of things my kids watch are previewed-and-approved-by-mom DVDs. Older kids KNOW that TV isn’t real and especially that cartoons aren’t real (live action can be harder for it to sink in that it isn’t real, they are real people acting), younger kids have a much harder time distinguishing real from story. It might be true for other families though that kids who watch alot of TV really young learn quicker that TV is just pretend than kids who watch very little TV. An interesting thought…

    December 9th, 2009 at 6:25 pm

  27. NicoleK says:

    I’ve only seen bits & pieces of this film… enough to know it’s not for my sensitive 5-year-old son (who also has very limited screen time) I’ve been bothered b/c I heard that next week his kindergarten class will be having a pajama party and watch this film! ummm… i’m tempted to keep him out all week so he doesn’t hear all the build-up and plans! Not sure how I’m going to handle it. Being that he is bored in school already, I’m not thrilled they are showing a movie… but that’s a whole other topic! All in all, I think this film should probably be rated PG and not G…

    December 9th, 2009 at 8:53 pm

  28. Elana says:

    We watched it last night with our 2.5 year old. She was on the edge of her seat for the ‘roller-coaster’ parts. I put her on my lap and made it like it was fun, I fast forwarded through the creepy top part on the train. I asked her if she was scared, and if she like or didn’t like being scared, she said she liked it. Thrill seeker! What amazed me the most is that she teared up at the end when they found the bell under the tree. I asked her if she was sad, she said, “not sad, crying.” I had no idea a two year old was capable of crying from being emotional…

    December 11th, 2009 at 3:51 pm

  29. Dallas says:

    I saw this movie in the theater a few years ago, with my husband and my (then) 7 year old stepson.

    They were both, “meh”, which surprised me, because they both love animation and books (and had read the book in advance).

    While we were walking up the stairs to our seats, I was holding 3 large Sprites, and I tripped. I sat through that movie wet and cold, with a bloody chin. I was so excited about seeing it, that I was set to ignore my physical discomfort.

    The emotional discomfort was even worse.

    I literally hated every single minute of it, and will not allow my child (now 2.5) to ever see it.

    December 12th, 2009 at 6:36 pm

  30. Jen says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t like the movie! I taped it on cable last year and didn’t even really watch it, but the parts i saw looked really scary, and I don’t want my girls watching it until they are much older. I was surprised about how many people say they love it!

    December 12th, 2009 at 8:10 pm

  31. Mervin Bunter says:

    Remember that this movie was made originally for 3D. Look at the horror that Zemekis made of the new 3D animated Christmas Carol. All of his 3D movies are filled with crazy roller-coaster sequences. By the way, don’t take your kids to see the new Christmas Carol either: it’s the same director as Polar Express.

    That said, I’m surprised that so many people still think that “animated = safe for kids”. Even if a movie is rated ‘G’, it might not be something we want our kids to see.

    December 21st, 2009 at 3:29 pm

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