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For nearly 20 years, families around the world have made Chris Van Allsburg's enchanting story The Polar Express part of their holiday celebrations, as much a treasured part of the season as hanging stockings by the fire, exchanging warm wishes and coming together with friends and family. 

"It became an annual tradition to read the story to my son while he was growing up and it never failed to fascinate him,” says filmmaker Robert Zemeckis, a fan of the book since its 1985 publication. "The imagery has an otherworldly quality, existing somewhere between dreams and reality, which captures the mystery of a restless Christmas eve.”

"There was a visceral element to the story, I hoped would find its voice for the screen,” adds Tom Hanks, himself a father of four who has logged countless bedtime story hours of his own. "For years, between November and December, depending on the children's ages,” he recalls, "I think I read it four times a week, twice a night, over and over again. So I've been aware of the story since my 14-year-old was three.” He and Playtone partner, producer Gary Goetzman, proposed the idea of a big screen version to author Van Allsburg and producer William Teitler, partners in Golden Mean Productions, and Hanks ultimately brought the project to longtime friend and colleague Zemeckis. Together, the Oscar-winning pair had previously explored issues of the human spirit in Forrest Gump and Cast Away. Both were intrigued by the important spiritual journey taken by the nameless young hero in The Polar Express. 

Beloved by children, the The Polar Express holds a special appeal for adults as well, who see themselves in the character of the young boy and remember their own childhood excitement and anticipation on that one most important night of the year. Perhaps they also remember the moment when the first shadowy doubts crept into their own young hearts and they realized that growing up might mean losing something precious and intangible forever, something they couldn't quite define but they could certainly feel. 

The Polar Express is about that moment, that crucial juncture of innocence and maturity where a child can choose one path that will close his heart forever or another, where he learns that faith has no age, no rules and no limits. 

"The book took me distinctly into what I call the ‘waking space,' that state of mind between sleeping and waking where you have a touchstone in reality but are still seeing through a dreamlike filter and you're vulnerable to a lot of emotions that wash over you,” says producer Steve Starkey, Zemeckis' longtime producing partner and an Oscar winner for his work on Forrest Gump. "I said to Bob, ‘this is a place worth transporting people to.'”

Zemeckis, who wrote the screenplay with William Broyles, Jr. (Cast Away, Apollo 13) and went on to direct The Polar Express, acknowledges that, "It's a story everyone can relate to. So many of us, as children or adults, have questioned our belief in something or gone through the process of having our faith tested and restored. Kids can take the story literally as a journey to find Santa Claus, while older readers understand it as a metaphor for much bigger ideas. It deals with the symbols of Christmas but at its core is a universal story about belief in things you don't completely see or understand. 

"Hopefully,” the director continues, "as you grow older you don't become so cynical that you stop believing. The idea of Christmas is warmth and unselfishness. Santa Claus is a symbol of that but you don't have to believe in him to have that feeling.”

Once on the train, the boy meets a number of other children, each with his or her own circumstances and lessons to learn. "Much like The Wizard of Oz,” notes executive producer Jack Rapke, "each child aboard this magic train is on his or her own personal journey, and each must find what they're missing

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