Dir: Robert Zemeckis. US.2004. 92mins.

Only Hollywood couldproduce a film as lavish and technologically ground-breaking as The PolarExpress, and Warner Bros is banking on that fact to entice millions offamilies around the world into their seasonal heartwarmer.

The film brings to lifeChris Van Allsburg's classic US kids' book using a new animation techniquecalled Performance Capture in which live action performances by actors arecomputerised and employed in a stunning computer-generated landscapes.

Add Tom Hanks in five rolesand director Robert Zemeckis and it sounds like a slamdunk for the studio.Problem is the extreme cost of the new technology which took the budget to amighty $165m and prompted Warner to invite a partner into the picture - in thiscase Steve Bing's Shangri-La Entertainment which pumped some $80m into theproduction.

So will it pay off' It opensin North America just five days after Pixar's incredibly sophisticated TheIncredibles, which takes CG animation to new ground itself, although morein terms of storyline and character-development than technique, and that issome tough competition.

There should be room in themarket, domestically and overseas, for both pictures, especially since Polar Express has a more urgent seasonaltheatrical life than The Incredibles, which will play well into the newyear and beyond. Polar Express also hits a younger demographic and ismore a kids' movie than its Pixar rival, which will appeal to adults as much asto kids.

That said, the market for ThePolar Express in the US is set to be very broad. The rightChristmas-themed pictures like Home Alone or The Santa Clausehave reached vast audiences in a short period of time in the US, and ThePolar Express is magical enough to join their ranks. Long-term value forWarner Bros as a Christmas staple in ancillary media is considerable.

Internationally, the book onwhich it's based is not well-known nor is this particular brand of Americansentimentality particularly beloved by overseas audiences (see Hanks in TheTerminal), but with Warner's powerful international machine behind it, itshould deliver some impressive numbers.

The animation technique, anadvanced form of motion capture developed by Sony Pictures Imageworks, isextraordinary. Each character displays nuances in human face and body movementswhich traditional animation techniques have failed to produce to date. Thebackgrounds which reflect and expand on Van Allsburg's beloved paintings arealso a treat for the eye.

Zemeckis' classicfor-all-the-family story-telling skills (remember Back To The Future andWho Framed Roger Rabbit') are also on show, as the film for the mostpart moves along at a cracking pace. Hanks acted out five roles including beingreduced in size to play the hero boy, an eight-year old having doubts about theexistence of Santa Claus who, one Christmas Eve, is picked up by a train calledthe Polar Express bound for the North Pole.

Hanks also plays the boy'sfather, the conductor of the train (here he is unmistakeable), the mysterioushobo and Santa Claus. As the journey continues, the boy is faced with variouschallenges including bringing the Lonely Boy (Peter Scolari) out of his shelland saving the train from disaster with Hero Girl (Nona Gaye) before learningthe lesson of believing-without-seeing at the North Pole.

Parents will be dazzled bythe technology but might bristle at the pseudo-religious nature of the story,not to mention some stomach-churning sentiment thrown in courtesy of AlanSilvestri's score. In fact Silvestri and Glenn Ballard contribute sixsub-Disney songs which frankly are unnecessary. One song in particular bySilvestri and Glenn Ballard called WhenChristmas Comes To Town adds an unwelcome dollop of treacle into theotherwise sprightly pace of the story.

Prod cos: Playtone, ImageMovers, Golden Mean, Castle RockEntertainment, Shangri-La Entertainment
Worldwide dist:
Warner Bros
Exec prods:
Tom Hanks, JackRapke, Chris Van Allsburg
Steve Starkey, RobertZemeckis, Gary Goetzman & William Teitler
Zemeckis & RobertBroyles Jr, based on the book by Van Allsburg
Don Burgess & RobertPresley
Prod des:
Rick Carter & DougChiang
Jeremiah O'Driscoll & ROrlando Duenas
Alan Silvestri
Main cast:
Tom Hanks, MichaelJeter, Peter Scolari, Nona Gaye, Eddie Deezen, Charles Fleischer