Since its release in 2004, The Polar Express has become one of the most beloved Christmas movies. Every December, it graces the screens of televisions all over the world. It’s even inspired a real-life Polar Express experience that stops by various towns throughout the United States every Christmas. Though it might be a Christmas classic, The Polar Express has always felt more complex than most light-hearted Christmas movies.

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The Polar Express (2004), Warner Brothers

He’s extremely self-centered and thrives off of attention. When he meets Santa Claus, he loudly announces that he wants to be the one to receive the first gift of Christmas by yelling, “Pick me!” Know It All even sneaks into Santa’s toy bag to make sure he gets all the presents on his list. To his disappointment, all he finds is “a bunch of stupid underwear.”

Santa Claus suggests that Know It All learn some patience and humility. When he gets back on the train, the conductor punches “Learn” onto his ticket. He initially misreads it as “Lean,” ready to correct the conductor. When the conductor corrects him, he accepts it and gets on the train, learning that he doesn’t always have to educate other people because it is just as important to learn from others.

“Young man, patience, and a smidgen of humility.”

-Santa Claus, The Polar Express

Although every character had a crucial lesson to learn, none of the characters were forced onto the train. In fact, both Hero Boy and Billy almost missed it. Each child’s decision was whether or not to get on, meaning they were not destined to learn anything. They had to make the conscious choice to take a risk and get on the train in order to grow.

Is It All A Dream?

It’s unclear if the experience Hero Boy has on the Polar Express was all just a dream, but many things suggest it might have been. During the scene with Hobo, Hero Boy asks, “Are you saying that this is all just a dream?” Hobo responds, “You said it, kid, not me.” Later, as Hero Boy struggles through the snowstorm on top of the train, he tries to force himself to wake up. He pinches his arm, shakes his head, and yells, “Wake up.” Yet, nothing he does seems to wake him from what he perceives as a dream.

“The one thing about trains is, it doesn’t matter where they’re going, what matters is deciding to get on.”

-Conductor, The Polar Express

Another telling sign is the parallel between the two scenes in the film. At the start of the film, when Hero Boy awakes to the sound of the Polar Express, he grabs his robe off of his bed and accidentally rips his pocket. The marbles that were in his pocket fall and scattered around the floor. The following morning, Hero Boy grabs his robe to run downstairs and open his Christmas presents. Again, he rips his pocket, and his marbles fall all over the floor. Could this have happened twice, or was the original scene an illusion?

Perhaps whether it is a dream or not is all up to perspective, or more specifically, one’s ability to believe. After Hero Boy is given the first gift of Christmas, a bell from Santa’s sleigh, he puts it in his robe pocket. Unfortunately, he puts it in the pocket he ripped, and he loses it. The next morning, after he and his sister open all their presents, Sarah finds one last present behind the tree. A note attached reads, “Found this on the seat of my sleigh, better fix that hole in your pocket,” and it is signed, Mr. C. It seems impossible that his parents could have done this as the only ones to know about the bell were Santa, the elves, and the passengers on the train.

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“At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”

-Hero Boy, The Polar Express

The Significance Of Believing

Hero Boy and his sister can hear the bell, but his parents can not. This is because his parents don’t believe as he and his sister do. This seems to answer the question of whether or not the Polar Express was all a dream. For those who don’t believe, it could be perceived as a dream or an imaginary experience. For those who do believe, it was real. Like many things in this world, the Polar Express is only as real as someone believes it to be.