Every holiday season, millions of parents look for a place to drop the kids (or take a break themselves) between to-do obligations. That's one reason a film like 2003's critically panned The Cat in the Hat could rack up $100 million before audiences coughed it out like a hairball. But the enormity of this market isn't calming nerves just now over at Warner Bros., where preopening jitters about The Polar Express are approaching red-alert levels. The G-rated, $165 million fantasy stars Tom Hanks as the soul of five separate computer-generated characters, including an officious train conductor who looks a little like Groucho Marx. The grapevine says Express isn't the sure thing the Harry Potter franchise has been for Warner in Novembers past and Hanks himself is well aware of a chill in the buzz winds.
''The studio people are running around with cold compresses on the back of their necks,'' says the 48-year-old star, sounding as bemused and unflappable as ever. ''They're feeling their pulse continuously, and every seven minutes they're making a call to Bob Zemeckis [the movie's director and cowriter, who teamed with Hanks on Cast Away and Forrest Gump]. They're saying, 'Are we gonna be okay?' They're petrified.''
While Hanks himself doesn't betray a whit of worry, there's something to be said for the freak-out thing. For one, there's an opening-date pileup at the multiplexes. Polar chugs into theaters Nov. 10, a scant five days after Pixar's computer-animated superhero tale, The Incredibles. (How ironic that Pixar should upstage Hanks, the guiding light of the studio's smash-hit 1995 feature debut, Toy Story.) Paramount horns in Nov. 19 with the hand-drawn, Day-Glo-colored SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.
Alongside more familiar styles, Polar's trailblazing brand of CG trickery, christened ''performance capture,'' may also prove a tough sell. Here's how the process works. Actors covered with reflective markers are photographed as they move around a largely blank stage. Infrared-equipped cameras track the markers. Computers transpose the actors' movements into CG bodies, and then technicians manage to drape simulated clothing, hair, and skin around those figures, placing them in completely synthetic settings.
Quite a few videogames have dabbled in these techniques, but never on this elaborate a scale. The results in the movie range from astonishingly lifelike to creepily waxwork-esque though you won't hear a shadow of doubt from Zemeckis or the technical team about the dazzle factor of what they've wrought. They're completely sold on it. In an attempt to inoculate the public against bewildered reactions, Warner has been circulating lots of behind-the-scenes shots of Hanks in a sensor-studded jumpsuit. It's the sort of stuff typically saved for the making-of annex on a DVD. And Hanks wonders if it's necessary. ''If this thing works,'' he says, ''no one's going to care how many reflective dots I had on my face. The best scenario is that the story works well.''