Island Packet — I have put off writing this column for three years now, because at some point its publication will jab a lengthy and irrevocably infectious splinter into the relationship between my son and me, probably even more than the horrible truth about what really happened to his fish when we got back from vacation. (I am afraid, little man, they did not go to the ocean for a visit.)
But I cannot let another holiday season pass without sounding a whistle of warning about what is possibly the third-weirdest Christmas-themed show ever (right behind “Carrie Underwood: An All-Star Holiday Special” and “A Left Behind’ Christmas,” in case you were wondering): “The Polar Express,” which is soulless and inorganic and creepers and depicts a world populated entirely by CGI robot Tom Hankses and is also partially responsible for my having to call 911 in late 2008, but more on that later.
“The Polar Express” was made by computers and Hanks plays everybody and it still cost $165 million to make, most of which ostensibly went to determining how many dead-eyed Talking Metaphors with leathery alien skin could be installed into a quiet 32-page children’s book.
Yet “The Polar Express” is hardly alone in being freaky; some of America’s most consistently popular examples of jingly quote-fingers kids’ shows include a beloved cartoon that’s basically 25 solid minutes of the unprovoked emotional abuse of a bald child, a movie about a bespectacled nerd who will stop at nothing to obtain firearms and a Claymation hellscape in which the main character is ridiculed by his peers because of a startling facial deformity (to say nothing of “White Christmas” and its very numerous murders).
(Do not get me started on Christmas music either, as I swear to Santa that more than one annual listening of McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” or anything that Mariah Carey was in the room for will literally compel me to beat elves remorselessly with Salvation Army buckets, and don’t think I won’t do it, you remember what happened last year, Petco.)
But at some point in 2007, my son became aware of “The Polar Express” and latched onto it with the singular, steel-eyed obsession of Edward in “Twilight” (and yes, I’d chaperone a kindergarten field trip to “Twilight” before letting it within a country mile of “The Polar Express,” as at least vampires are supposed to look undead).
Seriously, what in the hell is even going on here.
We have never had a Wiggles phase with the boy, so I’m scoring this situation as a tie, but on the other hand how bad can a group of friendly, melodic Australians be when contrasted with a movie whose primary message seems to be that if a strange man appears in your yard on an illogical train in the black of night offering you a ride to an unspecified destination, you better damn well get on that train.
And yet the fundamental rejection of the principle of stranger danger is only the first of many terrible themes in this film; the second involves a pretty cavalier approach to transit as it pertains to unsupervised children. “One thing about trains,” the bendable Hanksbot says, very seriously, “Doesn’t matter where they’re going, what matters is deciding to get on” — as though it’s permissible, if not required by Santa, to board random forms of mass transit without regard to where they might end up, which is something an insane hobo would do in 1921 because he was fleeing outlaws. Because that is PATENTLY WRONG! It ENTIRELY matters where the train is going! What if the train’s going to Pittsburgh, or Darfur or a Sarah Palin book signing?
I could literally do this all day: This movie has an angry hobo-ghost who lives on top of the train and washes his socks in coffee, there’s a fiesta of puppet corpses, the North Pole is apparently a sweatshop staffed by exceedingly unpleasant elf worker drones (one of which is Steven Tyler) who speak Yiddish for some reason and greet Santa’s appearance with pretty desperate enthusiasm for a guy they see every day, Santa himself is a pompous snooze box and there’s a scene at the end where a present arrives that neither parent recognizes, and it contains a note from a “Mr. C” advising a boy to fix a hole in his pocket and NO ONE IS THE SLIGHTEST BIT WEIRDED OUT BY THIS. Also there’s the film’s ostensible final message, which is that if you’re an 8-year-old kid who is having trouble believing in Santa, you should believe in Santa. I am not sure why this is a good message, unless the filmmakers are endeavoring to create a new generation of playground bully targets.
All of this, of course, is lost on my son, who likes the movie because it has a train in it. In fact, he likes it so much that late one night last year, he left the house at 1:30 in the morning and walked off into our darkened neighborhood, telling us later, after the police had found him, it was because he heard “The Polar Express,” and decided to get on.