Thomas and the Magic Railroad
review by Dan Lybarger, 28 July 2000

Some big screen adaptations of children's TV-shows are merely retreads o their source material. The Pokémon series of flicks is a good example. With Thomas and the Magic Railroad, however, writer-director Britt Allcroft has grander designs. The simple stories that kept television audiences happy with Thomas the Tank Engine have been augmented with live actors and elaborate special effects. The TV series usually featured miniature train sequences narrated by an unseen voice (like Ringo Starr, George Carlin or Alec Baldwin).

This change is a misstep because much of the charm to the series came from its low-key simplicity. The voiceover allowed viewers to use their imagination to accompany the onscreen action. The trains and human figures rarely changed expression, but the voiceover allowed the audience to fill in whatever was missing on screen with their imagination.

With a cast of name actors slipping in and out of the island of Sodor (where Thomas and his fellow tank engines live), things get confusing. This time around, Thomas (voice by Eddie Glen) has to defend himself and the other coal-driven engines against the mean-spirited Diesel 10 (voice by Neil Crone). With a fearsome claw coming out of his roof, Diesel 10 bullies any other engine he considers weak or obsolete. Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin) tries to corral the engines on the island, but he has a personal crisis when he runs short of the magic gold dust that allows him to disappear and reappear from one place to another.

The key to solving these problems could be near Shining Time Station where Mr. Conductor also works. Shining Time Station is where Mr. Conductor comes up to everyone else's knees and bears a resemblance to the real world (the train engines do not talk). Close by lives a bitter hermit named Burnett Stone (Peter Fonda, last seen in The Limey). Stone keeps a classy old engine named Lady. Stone has let the engine down in some way and cannot bring himself to start her again. His granddaughter Lily (Mara Wilson, Matilda) heads to there to try to cheer him up.

Even after watching the movie it's difficult to figure out how all of these factors relate. It's taxing for adults, much less children with minute attention spans. The movie makes even less sense for people who were either casual viewers of the TV-version or have not seen it at all. It also doesn't help that the film suffers from radical shifts in tone. The train sequences, with their low-tech approach clash with all of the gold dust special effects, which seem more like something from a Star Trek episode. In addition, Allcroft handles the live actors awkwardly. The children and even Baldwin frequently come across as stiff and affected. Only Fonda, who perfected his brooding mode in Ulee's Gold, seems at home.

A parent can leave a child at Thomas and the Magic Railroad and might even be able to sit through it on their own. Still, the sloppy storytelling leaves the magic in short supply.

Written and
Directed by:

Britt Allcroft

Peter Fonda Mara Wilson Alec Baldwin Didi Conn Russell Means Michael Rodgers Cody McMains




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