To begin, some background information: "Thomas the Tank Engine" was a strange
and wonderful British TV show for children, first broadcast when I was
growing up in the 1980s, and still popular today. It took place at a railway
station, where every day virtuous steam engines and malevolent diesel trains
would pull in to tell the one human character, Fat Controller, what scrapes
they'd been getting into. It was innocent fantasy, complete with a great
theme tune, and narration by Ringo Starr.
Now it has been adapted to the big screen in a movie that shows why
'Americanisation' is a pejorative term. "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" is
nonsensical, cheesy, saccharine drivel, with all the charm of its source
material removed, and the low-tech special effects kept in. The original
television programme was on a limited budget, and so the trains were plastic
models with stationary painted-on expressions that talked without moving
their mouths. This is a big Hollywood movie, but uses the same technique,
despite having computer graphics for its other sections.
The movie's shabby, mismatched visual style prevents its multiple story
threads from coming together, and creates a schizophrenic tone, especially as
characters zoom across different worlds "Alice in Wonderland"-style without
ever looking shocked. There are scenes in 'reality' -- where a reclusive
railway tycoon, Burnett Stone (Peter Fonda), is being visited by his
granddaughter Lily (Mara Wilson). Their time together is interrupted by a
distress call from the film's main character, Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin), a
midget pixie who uses a magic whistle to transport himself across the
multiple universes he inhabits.
These include Shining Time -- a whitewashed theme park of a town, whose
residents wear zombie-like smiles and uniform clothing -- and the Island of
Sodor, which resembles episodes of "Thomas the Tank Engine" but has nothing
to do with anything else in the movie. The plot follows Mr. Conductor's
search for gold dust, which he needs to power his whistle. Efforts to
resupply keep getting thwarted by naughty trains like Diesel, Splatter and
Dodge, and he must speak to flowers, send supernatural spells to dogs and do
a lot of other incomprehensible stuff to succeed.
I found this hard to follow. Kids will be so confused you might as well hand
them the work of Plato in the original Ancient Greek tablets. The actors
deserve sympathy, too, because they had to pretend that it all made sense.
Baldwin is the most embarrassing -- wandering around on his own, attempting
to breathe excitement into nothing in particular, talking as if to an
imaginary friend. Fonda delivers a ridiculous series of sentimental, deadly
serious speeches; he looks like he's trying to win an Oscar, even though his
lines are all similar to the following: "Lady was the best steam engine in
the world... ah, how I loved her... and my wife loved her, too... but Diesel
chased her... and her coal all ran out! O God!"
"Thomas and the Magic Railroad" was written, produced and directed by a
first-time helmsman named Britt Allcroft. He should be ashamed of himself.
Projects like this -- incompetent and tortuous, but advertised as 'family
entertainment' -- not only insult children's intelligence, but eat away at
them, causing devastation. Kids will approach it with high expectations,
because of love for the TV show; then refuse to believe it's bad, convince
themselves that it must be good, and that they just weren't paying attention.
Then they will slowly realise that, no, it WAS bad, and that they have been
cheated and fooled.
Copyright © 2000 UK Critic