Hanks aboard ‘Express’

Thesp's Christmas pic slated for 2004 release

Tom Hanks has firmed up his next two starring roles. He’ll first take a steam train to the North Pole in the Robert Zemeckis-directed “Polar Express,” then play a thief in the Coen brothers-directed remake of “The Ladykillers” at Touchstone.

Hanks and Playtone partner Gary Goetzman laid the tracks several years ago at Castle Rock for a CGI adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s celebrated picture book “Polar Express.” The project, about a boy whose belief in Santa Claus results in a fantasy trip to the North Pole aboard a magical train, has recently gathered a full head of steam. Robert Zemeckis has been working on the script with “Cast Away” scribe William Broyles, and the film is nearly set for a February start date.

Pic is being eyed for a holiday 2004 release, with Hanks playing the train conductor in what might be the most CGI-ambitious holiday film since “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

The package isn’t completely wrapped yet because of a pre-existing arrangement Warner Bros. has with Universal on Castle Rock-driven fare that dates back to “The Green Mile.” Because WB got domestic distribution on that Stephen King adaptation, Universal has the right to board “Polar Express” as half-partner and domestic distributor, a decision the studio is expected to make next month. Either way, the film is expected to be the next project by “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” producers Playtone. Hanks and Goetzman will produce with Zemeckis, Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey of ImageMovers, as well as Van Allsburg and Bill Teitler of Golden Means Prods.

While Hanks could conceivably slip in a different movie right after, all signs point to him following “Polar Express” with the black comedy “Ladykillers.” The film is a contemporized remake of the 1955 Ealing comedy that starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.

Penned by Joel and Ethan Coen and set in the South, the pic revolves around a crusty old landlady who unwittingly rents rooms to a group of thieves looking to use her haunt as a hideout. They try to dispose of the matron but find her fairly indestructible. Tom Jacobson, Barry Josephson and Barry Sonnenfeld are producing.

The Coens will take on “Ladykillers” after they complete “Intolerable Cruelty,” another black comedy they wrote that starred George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Hanks is repped by CAA.

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