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Thomas and the Magic Railroad

movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Thomas and the Magic Railroad

Starring: Alec Baldwin, Peter Fonda
Director: Britt Allcroft
Rated: G
RunTime: 89 Minutes
Release Date: July 2000
Genres: Animation, Kids

*Also starring: Mara Wilson, Didi Conn, Russell Means, Michael E. Rodgers, Cody McMains, Edward Glen, Jared Wall, Laura Bower, Lori Hallier

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Edward Johnson-Ott review follows movie review
2.  UK Critic read the review movie review
3.  Steve Rhodes read the review movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
4.  Susan Granger read the review movie reviewvideo review

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
1 star out of 4

One of my favorite relatives is Christopher, an extraordinary five-year-old. The little guy is cute as can be and wicked smart, with social skills far more advanced than those of most young children. You can always count on him to greet visitors sporting a big smile and perfect manners, with one notable exception. When a "Thomas, the Tank Engine" video is in the VCR, Christopher sits before the television entranced, gazing in rapt wonder at his hero, a plucky little train living in a candy-colored world. Talking to Christopher during a "Thomas" screening is an exercise in futility. With prodding, he may answer you, but his words will be distant and vague, which is perfectly understandable, because, while his body is nearby, his spirit is far away, on the magical island of Sodor.

Thomas and his friends can be seen daily on Nickelodeon as part of the long-running show, "Shining Time Station," but Christopher prefers watching the "Thomas" videos; compilations of the train's five minute adventures from the TV series. Since 1985, over 15 million videos have been sold worldwide of the gentle tales, based on a series of British children's books written in the 1940s by the Rev. Wilbert Awdry. Britt Allcroft, who began managing the affairs of Thomas in 1983, serves as writer and director for his feature film debut.

Fans of the good-natured trains will be pleased to learn that they make the transition from television to the big screen intact. In an era where computer animation rules, they remain defiantly primitive in appearance, with eyes that roll and mouths that do not move when they talk (although their expressions change from scene to scene). The trains look like toys, which I suspect is part of the allure for toddlers. Kids find comfort in familiarity and watching figures onscreen which resemble slightly animated versions of their own playthings probably makes them feel all warm and safe inside.

For a young children's film, "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" has a lot of plot. Thomas and his fellow trains chug away on a rail system owned by the oft referred to, but never seen, Topham Hat. Their placid existence is threatened by Diesel; a foul-tempered engine equipped with a metal claw and two henchmen. The motives behind Deisel's plotting (which I never caught) are likely irrelevant - he's simply a bully, and a bully will use anything as an excuse.

Meanwhile, Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin) has problems of his own. The tiny, garishly dressed man normally transports between Shining Time Station and Sodor using magical gold dust, but his supply has run low and he may be stuck far from his home station. As if that weren't troublesome enough, the visiting Junior (Michael E. Rodgers), Mr. Conductor's younger cousin, hangs around contributing nothing.

Wait, there's more! Deep in Muffel Mountain, Grandpa Burnett Stone (Peter Fonda) tries to refurbish a legendary steam engine named Lady. Apparently, Lady holds the key to activating a long discarded stretch of railway between the worlds, but Grandpa can't get her running again. When his 12-year-old granddaughter, Lucy (Mara Wilson), shows up from the Big City, accompanied by Patch (Cody McMains), a local boy, Grandpa redoubles his efforts. But is it too little, too late?

As the film leapt from one plotline to another, I grew confused, then annoyed and finally just fatigued. Eventually, I gave up any attempt to follow the story and just studied the general production. The segments with Thomas and company are the most pleasant; the primary colors and low-tech presentation feel oddly soothing. The scenes at Shining Time Station, which look like a chintzy version of the storefronts from an amusement park concourse, are acceptable, although the jumps from shots of the model trains to the full-sized sets are jarring.

The mountain segments are the weakest in the film, mostly due to a dull, depressing performance from Peter Fonda. The "Easy Rider" icon gives consistently flat line readings and looks as if he is on the verge of tears most of the time. I understand that Grandpa is supposed to be sad, but as Fonda plays him, he seems almost suicidal. When the film reaches its inevitable happy ending and Grandpa actually smiles, Fonda appears less like a happy man and more like a patient with a terminal illness trying to look brave for the sake of others.

Alec Baldwin fares much better, throwing himself into his role with great, goofy enthusiasm. Michael E. Rodgers is lively enough as Junior, but I remain unsure why Allcroft felt that the presence of a surfer dude would add to the film.

For this adult, "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" was needlessly muddy and most of the human cast seemed superfluous. But, of course, the film wasn't made for me. At the screening I attended, the toddlers clearly loved the train scenes, grew a little squirmy during the Shining Time Station segments and were audibly disinterested whenever Grandpa was on-screen. While I'm sure that Christopher and millions of little ones like him will embrace the film, especially when it hits video, I suspect that, in the end, they'll soon forget the movie in favor of re-watching the more succinct Thomas video collections. That is, unless they've learned how to use the fast forward button on their remote controls. And with kids as smart as Christopher out there, I wouldn't put it past them.

Author's note: I originally planned to turn this piece into a satire, but in deference to Christopher, decided to play it straight. Here's to you, pal!

Copyright 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott

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