Next Stop, Bethlehem?
Is The Polar Express an evangelical film?
The Polar Express is the tale of a boy's dreamlike train ride to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. Like all stories worth knowing, it's rich enough in image and feeling to accommodate many interpretations. Chris Van Allsburg, the author of the book, calls his story a celebration of childhood wonder and imagination. William Broyles Jr., one of the screenwriters of this year's film version, calls it a kind of Odyssey in which a hero undertakes a mythic, perilous journey of self-discovery. And Paul Lauer, who is a key player in the film's marketing apparatus, sees The Polar Express as a parable for the importance of faith in Jesus Christ.
Lauer's firm, Motive Entertainment, is best known for coordinating the faith-based marketing of The Passion of the Christ. Motive helped spread early word of mouth about the filmby holding screenings for church groups and talking the movie up to religious leaders. When The Passion took in a stunning $370 million at the box office, making it the highest-grossing R-rated film in history, Lauer and his cohorts got a lot of the credit. Earlier this year, Motive was hired by Warner Bros. to promote The Polar Express to Christians. But wait, is The Polar Express an evangelical film?
You'd certainly think so, considering the expansive campaign of preview screenings, radio promotion, DVDs, and online resources that Lauer unfurled in the Christian media this fall. This Polar Express downloads page includes endorsements from pastors and links to church and parenting resources hosted by the Christian media outlet HomeWord. There are suggestions for faith-building activities and a family Bible-study guide that notes, for example, the Boy's Christ-like struggle to get the Girl a train ticket. "The Boy risked it all to recover the ticket," the guide observes. "Jesus gave His all to save us from the penalty of our sins."
HomeWord Radio, which claims to reach more than a million Christian parents daily, broadcast three shows promoting the film. At one point, the show's host wondered excitedly if the movie "might turn out to be one of the more effective witnessing tools in modern times." Motive also produced a promotional package that was syndicated to over 100 radio stations in which Christian recording artists like Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, and Avalon talked about the movie as they exited preview screenings.
Motive's biggest gambit, though, was sending promotional DVDs to 50,000 churches. The "Preaching and Teaching Resource DVD" features a brief Q and A with Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis with no religious content. There's also a section called "Connection Ideas." Connection Idea No. 1 is to take a Sunday school class to see The Polar Express. Connection Idea No. 2 is to take a family trip to see The Polar Express.
The DVD's main attraction is the Scripture lessons culled from eight of the movie's scenes. At the beginning of each segment, leading evangelical writer, speaker, and minister Max Lucado offers a 1-minute commentary. In one scene, the Boy gets a bit nervous as the conductor invites him to climb aboard the strange and magical train. We too are nervous, Lucado explains while perched in an armchair, "not about trusting the train conductor, but about trusting Christ." Gary Gaddini, senior pastor of the Peninsula Covenant Church near San Francisco, told me that he used four of these clips and commentaries as the basis for a popular sermon he called, "Oh Come All Ye Doubtful."
If you didn't know about the promotional DVD and the family Bible-study guide, you might not think The Polar Express had an evangelical message. While the movierepeatedly stresses the value of faith and belief, it doesn't overtly peddle Christianity. The movie's epiphanic moment is a good example of this ambiguity. The Boy shouts, "I believe! I believe! I believe!" When he turns around, Santa Claus appears before him for the first time.
Some audience members—and a few Christian film critics—would argue that Santa Claus isn't necessarily a stand-in for Jesus Christ. Last month, Lauer told the Mobile Register that he sees The Polar Express as a parable, "not a movie about belief in God." But when Lauer speaks to a Christian audience, he tells a different story. Lauer told HomeWord Radio that when he asked Robert Zemeckis about all the biblical parallels he was seeing in the film, the director "winked and said, 'Nothing in a movie this big ends up in the script by accident.' " (Zemeckis was traveling and wasn't available for comment.)
Chris Van Allsburg, who says he's open to all interpretations of his classic children's story, told me he had no idea that Warner Bros. had any plan to market the film to evangelicals. He also says that he had never seen the preaching and teaching DVD until I showed it to him. William Broyles, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zemeckis, adds that he made no effort to embed any biblical messages in the Christmas movie. "We were very determined not to make [the movie] sectarian or of a particular religious faith in any way."
After a slow start, The Polar Express has picked up steam and may well make back its $165 million production budget. Considering his track record, Lauer might see a lot more work coming his way. He's already started planning for his next major project, a big-budget adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia. Lauer describes the movie as The Lord of the Rings meets the Bible. Now, that's something everyone can believe in.
David Sarno is a writer in Iowa City.
Still from The Polar Express © 2004 Warner Bros.