"The Polar Express" sends a bad message to children (spoilers)

I wasn’t quite sure where to put this. It’s not really so much a movie review as a critique of a Hollywood cliche and it’s not really vitriolic enough to be a rant so I’ll pose it as a philosophical position and invite responses.

So I saw The Polar Express today in the IMAX 3D format. Visually, the film was stunning. Simply as a piece of entertainment it works quite well. The IMAX 3D especially is so immersive and so intimate that I recommend it to anyone who’s who’s got this option available to them. My favorite scene was the one that followed the airborne train ticket on a dizzying and fully tracked journey. As a movie I give it a thumbs up so this is not a pan of the film in general.

Now on to my complaint.

The story centers around a kid who has come to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. He has even started to explain to his sister that santa would have to be able to fly faster than the speed of light and require a sleigh the size of an aircraft carrier to be able to carry all those toys. I immediately thought this kid had the makings of a Doper. He was examining his own beliefs and weighing them against the evidence of empirical reality. He was using his head, he was using critical thought, being skeptical, being rational, being scientific and asking questions. All commendable and desirable qualities in a young mind.

But the movie sees them as bad, as a problem. Doubting is wrong. In one scene on the train, a hobo ghost (at least I think it was a hobo ghost) uses a marionette to mock the kid in a derisive voice, saying, “You’re a doubter, you’re a doubter” over and over again.

The other kids all believe mindlessly, of course. They never ask questions, they never doubt and that is presented as some sort of desirable, healthy state.

There are platitudes throughout about how important it is to “believe.” At one point the Tom Hanks conductor character says, “Seeing is believing, but sometimes the things that are the most real are the things you can’t see.”

WTF, no they aren’t. What is that even supposed to mean.

The kid’s doubts are exemplified throughout the movie by his inability to hear Santa’s sleigh bells. Finally, he close his eyes and says “I believe, I believe.” Then he shakes this little jingle ball that fell off one of Santa’s reindeer and he can hear it. Yay. Then Santa gives him alll kinds of praise for turning his brain off and mindlessly believing.

The bell gets lost but later turns up under the kid’s Christmas tree. he and his sister can hear it but not his parents. Narrator talks about how he still has it and he’s the only one who can hear it now.

The end.

I think this is a horrible message for kids. It tells them not to doubt or be skeptical or ask questions about patently ridiculous beliefs. It suggests that there’s something wrong or corrupt with people who do and it treats “belief” as though it’s a voluntary condition to begin with.

Now I know this isn’t the first movie to present this bankrupt message to kids but it’s the first time I was really struck by how wrong it is. Kids should never be told to “just believe.” They should be told not to believe without proof. They should be told to ask every question, examine every belief, and draw rational conclusions.

The kid in this movie (and the kids in the audience) were told not to think. How can that be seen as a positive message?

I also think it’s wrong to send a message that belief is some sort of voluntary action or praxis rather than a purely dependant variable based on a hugh complex of subjective experience and interpretation of experience. You can’t just decide to believe in the Tooth Fairy, for instance, so it’s just as dumb to tell a kid he can just choose to believe in…well, in this case it was literally Santa Claus, but I would extend that to just about anything that isn’t supported by evidence.

I think we need to start calling this “just believe” cliche for the piece of dishonest mind poison that it is.

Am I right or am I right?

The election results earlier this month clearly show that the American Public has difficulty understanding how to think critically. Right on the mark (unfortunately). :eek:

You’re absolutely correct. It is because of similar objections that I have not trusted anything that has been printed in the New York Sun since 1897.

Jesus Fucking Christ on a pogo-stick. Can we have a thread without someone coming in a bringing up the election?

I believe you are correct DtC. Teaching children to just believe in things without thinking about their beliefs is poisoning their minds. I don’t have kids yet but if I did I’m not sure I’d even want to raise them believing in Santa. On one hand it’s a lot of fun and part of growing older means that not everything someone else tells you is necessarily true, even when it comes from adults. On the other hand what does it tell my kids that their father lies to them? Maybe I’m just being overly dramatic.


They call this story a Christmas epic. Now I have raised and am still raising three children.

I have never heard of the story.



Nothing at all.

Some epic.

Oh, I can’t speak to the movie or the story.

When you visit the bookstore, next time join your kids in the kids’ section; they don’t display this book near the poli-sci or current events sections.

1897? Goddamn! Just how old are you?

Haven’t seen it, won’t see it. The message of the movie is, I’m sure, to spend $5 (or whatever it costs to get into a “theater” nowadays), then spend another $X to see it again, but this time in “IMAX” (because you know it will be so much better!), then rush out and buy the toy trains and action figures and other merchandising tie-ins and finally, eat LOTS and LOTS of whatever kind of “Happy-Meal” is pimping the “free” toy/shill.

Movie content? Plot? Moral?

Yeah, right. :rolleyes:

Haven’t seen the movie, but I agree that this mindless belief is not how I want my children to approach the world. Can’t help but think that questioning beliefs will definitely put a crimp in religious indoctrination.

Nonetheless, I DO believe in Santa Claus. I would not be spending all this money on Xmas gifts for my kids if I did not.

Maybe this is the old crank in me showing, but I think if you’re kids are getting values from movies, you aren’t doing the best job of parenting.

Not trying to slam anyone in particular here. I just think that the moral lessons picked up in a two hour movie are easily wiped out by the years you have to screw up your kids. :stuck_out_tongue:

It’s been around for 20 years, I had it when I was little.

It’s by Chris Van Allsburg who wrote Jumanji (great book, bad movie), The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (brilliant book), and The Z Was Zapped (the coolest alphabet book I have ever seen). The pictures in The Polar Express are gorgeous, no matter what you think of the plot (which is different than the plot that Diogenes described).

If you have kids small enough to read picture books, look his work up.

I think you’re being a curmudgeon.

Do you mean to tell me that you would not endorse telling a 3 year old that Santa exists? How about a 5 year old? At some point I agree with you. But, by that time, your kids will have hopefully adopted your values, and will be able to think for themselves(as much as kids can).

Are you implying that kids get their values and mindset from movies?


I don’t think its the “Santa’s real” theme that DtC has a problem with. It’s that the movie glorifies the unquestioning belief in Santa, and rags on the protagonist for trying to empirically tell what’s going on. I’ll tell my kids there’s a Santa, but I won’t tell them they’re “wrong” for raising reasonable doubts to what I’m saying

Are you kidding? Kids certainly get part of thier mindset from movies/TV/etc. Movies are a form of media, just like books. Would you say “Are you implying that kids get thier values and mindset from books, Puhlleeeze”.

Certainly parents are a huge factor as well, but part of that is that parents dictate what media their kids consume and how they think about that media. To deny all that TV watching that kids do makes any difference in their beliefs is silly

I see nothing usefull to be gained by lying to one’s children about Santa Claus. Will they less happy on Christmas morning if they know from the start the gifts come from their parents? Santa Claus is a myth (and a particularly commercial one, at that) and should be identified as such from the get-go.

It’s the same sort of story as Peter Pan, really. Remember the bit where Tinkerbell is dying, and you have to clap your hands if you believe in fairies? I don’t know if that’s in the Disney movie; it was in the play, and I think in the book as well.

We have a cultural belief, one that did not really originate in modern America, that belief in magic is a good thing–up to a certain point, anyway. Children are supposed to believe in magic, in fairies, in Santa, in wonders. Maybe not literally, but at least as a sneaking suspicion in the back of our heads that somewhere, magic just might be real.

This belief may be nearly unspoken now, but it was downright blatant 150 years ago. I suppose it started along with the worship of childhood and innocence that emerged in the early 19th century. It manifests now partly in parents who want their kids to believe in Santa, because they believe that faith in magic is good for children, and that Santa is a lovely fairy tale and an essential part of childhood.

While I’m a big fan of folk and fairy tales, we don’t encourage a lot of Santa talk in our home. I have not seen the movie yet, but the book made me tear up at the end, despite my dislike of Santa-worship–because I have absorbed the attitude that belief in magic is good, and that the loss of it is a sad, if necessary, part of growing up. Even though I cannot remember ever believing in magic myself.

So, should the debate extend to whether this is a good cultural belief? It permeates a lot of media, both childrens’ and adults’, and no matter how self-consciously skeptical most Dopers are, I would bet that many will find it in their own makeup.

It is supposed to mean that not all of reality is objective. A point that very few philosophers or scientists would dispute. Frankly I’m surprised that no one has challenged that point yet.

Can you really not think of anything that is real that can not be seen or objectively measured? The first thing that sprang to mind for me is death, what Pratchett refers to as ‘The ultimate reality’. And indeed for most people death is the ultimate reality. It is more real than anything else in the world, whether we are talking about their own death or the death of a loved one. But death can’t be seen. It only exists as, at best, a privative and in an objective sense it is doubtful if it is even that. Certainly it can’t be seen but that doesn’t make death any less real. I could say the same thing about love, or the value of the Greenback or great many other things that are very real and have a massive effect on human lives but are in no way able to be seen.

The hard-science, objective critical evaluation of the world that you outline in your OP is one very handy tool for examining the world and our place in it. But I’ve never heard anyone else ever suggest that it is the only way. Much of human life, and arguably the most important bits, are not objective. They are emotions and concepts and beliefs and thoughts that can not be seen or weighed or measured or in any way established to exist outside the minds of humans. In many cases they won’t bare the close and constant scrutiny against objective reality that you suggest should always be used without fail. Constant consideration of whether your partner loves you for example, conducted as you suggest, would be a disaster for most if not all relationships. Most people know that their partners love them intuitively and emotionally. It’s not a conclusion based on asking questions and being critical. And that is equally true of a great many of the important things in our lives.

I agree with you that children should be taught to value scientific critical thinking based on objective reality. Where I disagree completely is your belief that it is wrong to teach them to value things that that can’t be ‘proved’ by scientific critical thinking based on objective reality. Things like justice, mercy, honesty and fair play can’t be seen, just as the movie proclaims. That doesn’t make them any less real for 99% of humans even of they are not real to you. Saying that belief is important is not a platitude, it’s a truism. Belief is important for those things and a great many others that are vital to the existence of human societies. Indeed they only exist because of people’s beliefs in the concepts.

I can not agree that children should be taught never to believe in things that can’t be proved. I think children should be taught about a great many things like mercy and justice and kindness that have no proof.

I haven’t seen the movie, but just based on what I do know of it and what you’ve posted you have drawn one conclusion, and not the one intended by anyone in production. The movie isn’t intended to tell kids not to think. It’s intended to tell them to avoid what you have done: to only accept and believe in the objective. That’s not a wrong message, it’s a very correct one. A great many things that are very real and very important can’t be proved. Just because you can’t see any objective evidence for the existence of mercy doesn’t make it any less real or any less valuable to believe in.

You’re wrong. You’ve gone to far in one direction, to the point where you actually deny that things exist in reality despite being entirely subjective. Real doesn’t just mean objective. It means that it has an existence, but that existence needn’t be open to scientific falsification as you suggest.

This is a movie for children. It uses a plainly ludicrous concept like Santa Claus as a metaphor for everything in the world that exists only in a subjective sense. It then goes on to suggest that people can, with effort, learn to accept the existence of and value those subjective things even if they doubt them and/or can’t prove them and/or have never been raised to value them.

The kids aren’t being told not to think. The kids were being told that there are some things of great value that clearly exists but who’s existence can’t be arrived at by the kind of thought that you endorse as the only correct kind.

Diogenes Gould published a book called “Rocks of Ages” that deals with this perceived problem that either everything has to be based in science or everything has to be base don morality and religion. It’s probably well worth your time reading it. The basic premise of the book is that no such dilemma exists. Science exists to serve one purpose and the subjective philosophies that encompass morality, religion etc serve another purpose. There’s no inherent conflict and there’s no reason why everything has to be able to be seen and measured scientifically in order to exist and have value. That’s Gould’s conclusion and he presents a convincing argument to support it. It’s also an argument that appears to be in direct contradiction to your own position that everything has to have a basis in science, proof and observation in order to have any reality.

I agree with Gould and disagree with you.

The paranoid side of me insists that this is “another brick in the wall” of the frightening and growing trend of anti-intellectualism, but Hollywood has a history of that.

Think about how “smart” people are portrayed in most films: boring, socially inept, clumsy, somewhat crazy, or just plain weird. They need some cool, fun person to pry their nose out of a book and show them what’s “really important.”

For me the convention extends beyond magic and into the religious. I was reminded of creationists who bristle at scientific evidence and insist that you mus believe the Bible.

Blake, I don’t think the story was talking about subjective reality but about equating doubt with cynicism. I don’t think a kid should ever be told not to doubt (and the scene with puppet explicitly mocked the kid as a “doubter”). That in itself would be an attempt to control a kid’s subjective reality, would it not?

I just wish that kids’ movies would celebrate a life of the mind once in a while. I wish they would embrace the exhileration of breaking free from false belief systems. I wish they would encourage investigation, self-examination and real world wonder.

I also think it’s ridiculous for these stories to imply that believing something makes it true.

That’s it exactly. I’m not objecting to the 'belief in Santa," I’m objecting to the message that doubt is wrong or that kids should be told not to question what they’re told.

Haven’t seen the movie, but I think you’re being a little bit of a Scrooge here.

“Believe in Santa” movies have been around forever. Miracle on 34th Street is the first one to come to mind. These are geared towards little kids and Santa and are very sweet.

I don’t think another “Believe in Santa” movie is going to impact kids all that much. Sometimes, being told “just believe” isn’t so bad, especially for a kid. It makes things more fun. Believing in Santa when I was a kid was fun. But that belief won’t last, because it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. But it’s fun to believe, just sort of, when you’re a kid. Because when you get older, there’s no way that you’ll be able to keep that level of blind faith up. Believing in fun, silly stuff (such as Santa) when you are a kid is one of the fun things of being a kid.

So, no, I don’t think that another “Believe in Santa—just believe” movie is all that bad for kids. There are plenty of other messages out there that will effectively counterbalance it, I think. And, if the parents are worth their salt, they’ll make sure of it.

A lot of kiddie lit and kids movies do support that, though - kids’ adventure stories often have the kids as the only ones smart/creative/whatever-enough to figure out that ____ is an evil liar. (Lemony Snicket comes to mind.) While the “adults as buffoons” storyline isn’t really the same thing as “celebrating the life of the mind”, there’s a lot of emphasis in certain children’s genres on observation, critical thinking, and sticking to what you know is right even if authority figures claim differently.

Just not in Christmas movies. It’s a fact of the genre.