By Michelle Tan
November 22, 2004 12:00 PM

When he first heard Hollywood wanted to make a film version of his Christmas classic The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg was intrigued—but with a few reservations.

The story of a young boy whose magical train ride to the North Pole erases his doubts about Santa’s existence, the 1985 bestseller “doesn’t have characters who are toys come to life, and I didn’t think animation was capable of creating believable human characters,” Van Allsburg says. What’s more, “So many children’s films utilize pop culture references, tidal waves of irony, inappropriate comedy around flatulence….”

Like his story’s skeptical hero, though, the author soon came to believe in a man with many gifts—in this case, Tom Hanks. “It was clear that he wanted to make a different kind of story,” says Van Allsburg, 54, whom Hanks approached in 2001 about optioning the book.

Pulling into theaters this month, The Polar Express is different indeed. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) and featuring a digitally manipulated Hanks in four roles—the protagonist, the train’s conductor, a hobo and Santa himself—the production is the first full-length feature filmed entirely using Performance Capture, a computer-generated imagery technique that digitally builds virtual characters from the movements of live actors (see box). So how does all that technology sit with an author who doesn’t own a computer, avoids cell phones and writes his books on yellow pads? In pencil? “It’s not simply a film that looks like the book,” says Van Alls-burg, who saw a screening last month. “The film brought the book to life.”

If his fans agree, Warner Bros, could have a huge hit on their hands. A two-time Caldecott Medal winner, Van Allsburg has written 15 books. (Express alone has sold 6 million copies to date.) And the 1995 movie version of his 1981 book Jumanji grossed $256 million worldwide. “He works magic,” says Maurice Sendak, a friend. Hanks, an admirer since he first read Express to his kids, puts it this way: “His stories are like miniature Twilight Zone episodes, wrought with danger and power. Yet you meet him and he is buttoned-down, not like a kooky artist who wears a beret.”

Perhaps it’s those middle-class, middle American roots. Raised by a dairy-products manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Van Allsburg majored in fine arts at the University of Michigan before moving to Providence for an advanced degree in sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design. Wed to his college sweetheart, Lisa, in 1975, he decided to try his hand at children’s books after Lisa, then an elementary school art teacher, brought home Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. “It convinced me that you could make a picture book that was art,” Van Allsburg says.

Today, he conjures his fantastical tales on an antique drafting table in the attic studio of the Providence cottage he shares with Lisa, 54, and their children Sophia, 13, and Anna, 9. He draws from what he knows: The template for the boy’s home in Express was his childhood Tudor-style house, and the sparring brothers in 2002’s Zathura (now being filmed with Tim Robbins) were inspired by his daughters’ “little battles in the back of the car—you know, ‘She touched me!'”

His girls are unawed by his fame: Asked once what her father did for a living, recalls Lisa, Anna replied, “He thinks.” To them, says Van Allsburg, “it’s no big deal. It’s just what I do.” He takes a similar stance. While the Express film “is lovely entertainment,” says Lisa, “Chris is not a star, and he doesn’t want to be treated like that.” He’s eager, in fact, to watch the movie like everyone else. “The first time, it’s like watching your child in a play—you’re so worried they might forget a line that you can’t really see it the way you should,” he says. “I was wearing my judge’s robe the first time. I’m eager to see it again with a bag of popcorn.”

Michelle Tan. Anne Driscoll in Providence and Amy Longsdorf in New York City