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This is a "Wild Mass Guess" entry, where we pull out all the sanity stops on theorizing. The regular entry on this topic is elsewhere. Please see this programme note.
The Polar Express
The sound of the bell is an ultra high sound.
As a person ages, they become unable to hear the most high-pitched sounds anymore. So that would explain the adults not hearing the sound of the bell. As for why the main character hears it even as an adult, let's say his hearing ability is superhuman.

  • OOO! Good one!
  • It's an interesting theory, but it doesn't explain why the Hero Boy couldn't hear it until after he decided that he believed in Santa Claus, and meant it. Or why, as he says, it rings for everyone else he knows that still truly believes.

The Hobo is Jesus

Perhaps he's a ghost, which could tie into the Holy Spirit. Perhaps he died, but now lives.

Jesus was an unshaven man who had no belongings, was disbelieved by many, and shared a lot. He also saved a lot of people. The Hobo has no belongings but the very basics for survival, and yet shares what belongings he has. Most people don't believe he exists. He's unshaven and dirty, since he's a Hobo. He saved the main character by sharing his "joe" so the boy wouldn't freeze to death, and he saved the conductor.

Also:

Hobo: What exactly is... is your persuasion on the Big Man, since you brought him up?
The Boy: Well, I... I want to believe... but...
Hobo: But you don't want to be bamboozled. You don't want to be led down the primrose path! You don't want to be conned or duped. Have the wool pulled over your eyes. Hoodwinked! You don't want to be taken for a ride. Railroaded!
[Hobo puts out fire with the joe]
Hobo: Seeing is believing. Am I right?

Possibly referencing the main character's agnosticism.

The Hobo understands, just as Jesus was filled with fear and doubt before his death (before accepting his fate). "Seeing is believing" refers to the Hobo having seen the "Big Man" (Santa; symbolically God); since the Hero ends up meeting Santa, it seems like the Hobo ends up preaching to him subtly (Parables) and leading him down the right path.

  • The Hobo is a little too mean to be Jesus.

Billy is Dewey.
The reason that Christmas "doesn't work out for him" is that Malcolm, Reese, and Francis have always ruined Christmas for him. Lois hasn't been shown to completely cancel Christmas before, but she's threatened it. Maybe in this Malcolm in the Middle / The Polar Express world, she HAS completely canceled Christmas. Besides, the two have an uncanny resemblance.

The Hobo is Santa Claus himself.
Santa can take on a completely different appearance, and he can be in two places at once. He appears first to the Boy as the Hobo because he knows that the Boy won't believe his true form early on, and is preparing him to believe. This is either weird or awesome, your call.

The movie takes place in the same universe as Galaxy Express 999
The North Pole is not on Earth, it's a different planet entirely. The fact that, for several hours, it's five minutes to midnight refers to North Pole time, which runs slower than Earth time.

A true visit from Santa is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
This is why the poor boy never received a gift before the events of the movie, and why the parents don't wonder who puts the presents under the tree. He doesn't deliver to every house every year, but only to a lucky few. Most of the time, the parents put the gifts under the tree. The poor boy's parents didn't do this, so that's why he never got a present before his turn for a Santa gift came up.
Monsters UniversityWMG/Western Animation (Film)    

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