Thomas and the Magic Railroad

Directed by Britt Allcroft
Starring: Peter Fonda, Mara Wilson, Alec Baldwin, Didi Conn, Russell Means, Michael Rodgers, Cody McMains, and the voice of John Bellis.
MPAA Rating: G

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
July 27, 2000

I can understand why certain television shows are popular. "Pokémon" is basically a perpetual-motion machine of addiction -- Gotta catch 'em all! "Survivor" plays into the tendency of people to be both voyeuristic and greedy. However, I see no reason why "Thomas the Tank Engine" (and its American incarnation "Shining Time Station") should be so engrossing. I've never been able to watch more than a minute of it, and there's no big cross-promotion to support the show. Yet, these kids watch it religiously on PBS, then get their parents to buy all the videotapes. Now, these same poor souls will be dragged into the theatre for their children to see a feature-length "Thomas" spectacle.

In case you don't know, there exists a link between our world and the magic land of Sodor, where all the trains have plastic faces and talk. Mind you, their mouths don't move, and their expressions only change after the camera cuts away. Only their eyes move while they talk, and only Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin) has enough "sparkle" to visit them. He uses his whistle full of gold dust to take the magic railroad between Sodor and Shining Time Station, where he exists among us regular folk as a 1:10 scale facsimile of a person.

After a particularly bumpy trip to Sodor, he sees that his gold dust has run out, and can no longer return to Shining Time. Luckily, a very intelligent dog named Mutt helps him by putting young Lily (Mara Wilson) on the train from the big city to Shining Time, instead of Muffle Mountain, where Grandpa (Peter Fonda, yep he's a Grandpa now) is waiting for her. The Shining Time Station manager, Stacie (Didi Conn), gets her back on track, but only after Lily was in Shining Time long enough for the plot to give the illusion of continuity.

The film somehow has Grandpa Captain America involved with a special train called Lady. Lily goes to Sodor with Mr. Conductor's Scottish cousin Junior (Michael Rodgers), where she learns that Grandpa has to restore the train, get it back on the Magic Railroad, and that will bring the magic back. Otherwise, diesel trains will take over Sodor, leaving Thomas and his steam-driven friends in the cold. This is supposed to make sense, and it almost does, if you're willing to sit through it.

If you want to see how a four-hour epic can be condensed into 85 minutes, and still seem to drag, then maybe, just maybe, you would enjoy seeing this film. Only Baldwin, out of the whole cast, gets into his role, and provides all of the film's entertainment value. The rest of the time, you are either watching the annoying little model trains, or Fonda and Wilson phoning their lines in from Muffle Mountain. I had no idea that they could be so bad, but they find nothing in this material to work with. There is no joy, no wonderment, no creativity, just lazy condescension.

To watch this film, which looks like it was shot in somebody's basement, and then compare it to Chicken Run, one must really have to wonder why the ticket prices are the same. I understand if your kids really want to see it, there will be no stopping them. Chances are, they are very young -- too young for going to the movies. Here's a clue that I picked up from my screening of Thomas and the Magic Railroad: if your child is so small that combining his or her weight with the booster chair is not enough to hold the seat down, stay at home. Besides, the children I saw this with seemed quite indifferent to most of what happened on the screen.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000) -- VHS
Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000) -- DVD
Thomas and the Magic Railroad, a storybook by Britt Allcroft and Wilbert Vere Awdry -- Hardcover
Thomas and the Magic Railroad: Soundtrack -- Compact Disc


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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan