I’m not the first to look for the deeper meaning in the animated film The Polar Express. It is a wise film interspersing thoughtful conversation with high action – it would make a thrilling fast ride at a theme park. The music is also wonderful – it would also make a great musical.
Faith, and lack of it, along with the innocence and loss of childhood, are big themes, but also the general challenges of life that we experience whether child or adult. There are some key one-liners from the train conductor (Tom Hanks) – I thought one might pop up “it’s not the destination but the journey that is important” but instead, better, it’s: “it doesn’t matter where the train goes, it’s making the decision to get on it that matters.”
It is a risk for all the children to jump on the train but they do and discover aspects of themselves that they either didn’t know they had or find they needed confirmation of the qualities they did have. On the journey they are challenged, but also helped, by Doubt – the spirit of the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man who appears on and off in various parts of the train – also played by Tom Hanks.
This pairing of these two characters (conductor and spirit man) could be seen as theological – Hope (the conductor) and Doubt (the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man) are two sides of the same coin. We experience one with the other in most cases, but with friendship, empathy, and our own individual reflection, we can get through them. Three of the children become good mates – one boy struggles particularly with the concept of Christmas (we’re not given details but we assume he’s had a tricky home life, is lonely, and certainly doesn’t come from a wealthy background) but he is valued by his two friends.
Materially the children are on the search for presents but learn a great deal more about the gifts they already have within them and also what they need to learn and do to maintain hope and faith. The conductor makes a passing but key comment ‘sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.’
Holding onto the unseen is the challenge in life – the symbol of the bell in the film personifies this. Doubt says you must see to believe. Hope says you sometimes have to believe in order to understand, and to see.
I have an interest in physical theatre – both participating and watching it. It earths you. The workshop I recently attended focussed on movement and meditation. It involved various simple movement exercises such as standing in a circle and throwing a ball to other people in the circle. We were simply asked to pass and catch. We realised very soon though that is was not so simple – that we were sorry, embarrassed or annoyed when we dropped a ball. Some of us found it funny; some of us were cross and felt we had failed; some of us felt responsible when the person we threw it to did not catch.
We then discussed how we feel when we drop bigger balls in life – the ball of relationships, the ball of responsibility at work, the ball of ‘keeping it all together’. We discussed how so often we worry too much over actions which actually do not matter – yet do not worry over actions that do matter. We are told by society that certain actions are important when actually they are not – it is so terribly important that we run as fast we we can in life to achieve as much as we can and never mind the implications on others. Whether in the world of business, investment, trade or academia there are too many of us intent on getting to the top at the expense of others. Treat people badly but no matter as you will achieve what you want. Just get to your destination and ignore the journey (which is probably more enjoyable and enlightening anyway but you’re running so fast you don’t notice or don’t care).
Consider VAT. The tax we all pay on most items and services in the UK. It stands for ‘value added tax’ but in life, our actions or non action could be called ‘value added tension’. When we pass something on to someone – e.g. a piece of work we’ve worked on, we pass it on feeling some responsibility I guess, hoping we’ve done our best and that it will be appreciated. But, there is nothing more we can do so like the ball in the game, we should just pass it on and not worry perhaps. However, when we pass on the world to the next generation we have much less concern on what we pass on. It is strange I find. We care less for something that actually matters more.
In the film ‘Cloud Atlas’, we see the major message of the film is that everything is connected. Actor Tom Hanks who stars in it says ‘It’s above my pay grade to say what’s going on beyond this life but I embrace the mystery of it all. And as a layman who studies history, I am firm in my belief that the human condition throughout the history of the world has never evolved until someone did the right thing, which is a version of saying “it’s important the karma you put out right now because it’s going to affect eternity.”
It is a great thing that film and theatre can remind us of the priorities in life – I don’t think many people listen to their message but at least it is being said. The film ‘A Late Quartet’, focussing on music, rightly suggests that music is not separate from life. It is not just something experienced in the concert hall and then forgotten. Like great fiction, it is a drama that draws from and is inspired by the choatic nature of our lives.
We ignore what we think is unimportant and sooner or later it will come back to bite us. Modern business and academia does not invite us to live ethical lives that care about other living beings. Ego is the name of game. Well one day, the ball we throw out that should have been thrown with more care and value will come right back and hit us much harder.