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
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
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