Sony // 2000 // 84 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // November 17th, 2000
Little Engines CAN Do Big Things...
Some fine stars cannot save this adaptation from the British children's books and television series from being a hopelessly lost story only fit for children younger than my 6 year old. A pretty picture, with some nice songs, but several major flaws and many, many smaller ones keep this from being remotely entertaining. Columbia has done a nice DVD of the film, though unfortunately with only a full frame transfer.
Thomas is one of a group of miniature talking steam engines that work out of the mythical island of Sodor. Shining Time is a rail station that bridges the "real" world with the much smaller one that Sodor is a part of, and Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin, Hunt For Red October) is a 12 inch tall inhabitant with the power to move from one to the other by use of magic gold dust in his whistle. Unfortunately he is running out of gold dust, and only a fabled lost magic railroad has the key to getting more, and an evil diesel engine wants to find it first and destroy it, along with the only way to bridge the gap between Shining Time and Sodor. Add in a little girl from the real world for the kids to identify with, and you get the formula to move along.
I will admit for the most part it is a beautiful feature. The scenery is picturesque, and the models and other railroad engines colorful. It's all a very cute mixture of an ornate model railroad set-up and some very colorful set design. Some of the special effects work quite well; especially the tiny characters from Sodor put next to full size ones from Shining Time, and the gold dust sparkle CGI effects.
The DVD presentation is pretty fair. The picture, though only full frame, is very clear with bold renditions of the bright and vivid color palette. Detail levels are sharp without edge enhancement, and there aren't any artifacts to be found. Only a few of the special effects, with a 12" tall Alec Baldwin set up next to full size characters, shows any hint of ringing. The soundtrack isn't especially active, but a few directional pans are used that work well, and the music sounds quite nice coming from all channels. There are several songs that I thought were much better than the film it tried to support.
A variety of trailers, one deleted scene, and talent files comprise the extra content. The trailers cover a variety of Columbia DVDs that are family oriented, such as Stuart Little, Madeleine, Muppets from Space, and Jumanji. The one deleted scene was a throwaway that lasted perhaps 15 seconds. Talent files are the usual sparse coverage of the main actors and director.
Virtually everything about the film goes in this column. If there were an Oscar category for "Best Actors in the Worst Movie Imaginable" this one would be a shoo-in. Oscar winner Peter Fonda, Alec Baldwin, and Mara Wilson (Madeleine) are the main real life actors. What a waste of talent. Peter Fonda spends nearly the whole film looking so hang-dog and sad that he does little but slump and sulk, and Baldwin and Wilson get to join him in reciting the stupid sounding dialogue in a manner that brings up grade school plays for acting and emoting ability. It was obvious that the latter two were playing entirely for the pre-school set, and somebody forgot to tell Fonda that this was a kiddie film and that even kids wouldn't put up with his sad sack manner for long. My six-year-old wouldn't even watch more than a minute of it. The story is actually too complex for the youngest kids, but they won't notice. Unfortunately, the complications do nothing to add entertainment for the parents of these kids since it never tries to woo them with any intelligence. The most amazing thing is that this got a theatrical release at all; this had "straight to video" branded all over it.
I mentioned some special effects that did pretty well. But I left out the most inexplicable lack of use of these effects that simply killed what little of merit could possibly be brought to the film. These are talking engines with rolling eyes but whose mouths do not move. That simple thing made it extremely difficult to know which engine (each of which are actual characters in the film) was talking. It's a ventriloquist show without a dummy. The train engines change expression (always off camera) but the never have lips move when they talk. I understand that this is a convention from the cheaply made television show, but if they wanted anyone except fans of that series to want to watch it, they needed to make the engines really talk. Heck, now Disney can make realistic looking dinosaurs talk, yet these obvious model train engines can't move a muscle when they do. No film should depend entirely on fans of a book or series with their own knowledge base to make it work. Not that any of these train characters were very interesting, but that frozen visage while they were talking made me want to stop watching in the first 10 minutes.
I have one main complaint about the disc. Everyone seems committed to resorting to pan and scan transfers for family films. I think this is a mistake. My biggest worry is as DVD becomes more and more mainstream that even films for everyone will start getting this shoddy treatment. What's next, Lawrence of Arabia in pan and scan? I say get the tykes and their parents used to widescreen now so they won't force us to all give up a vital part of film in the future, namely the original aspect ratio. Soon enough 16x9 sets will be the standard and we don't want to ingrain anymore bad habits in the meantime than we have to.
This movie stunk. It stunk to high heaven. I had a very hard time sitting through it without finding something more interesting to do like trim my toenails. My six-year-old wanted nothing of it, yet he loved Casper's Haunted Christmas, which I reviewed this week as well. That straight to video feature had none of the advantages of fine "name" actors, yet was far and away the better program. Add in the cheesy talking models without moving lips for characters, and a story that doesn't fit any demographic for interest, and I can't recommend enough that you pass it by. When my brother gave me a call and I told him I was writing this review, he asked if he should buy it. I told him to buy five and give them to people he doesn't like for Christmas presents.
Fans of the television series and certainly those who have seen and already like the film will be pleased with the DVD, at least those who don't mind pan and scan transfers. The rest of you stay far, far away from this one.
The makers of this film are found guilty of making something for kids that they probably won't enjoy, and their parents will pull their hair out rather than watch. I'm not sure what the sentence is for that, but it's not light. Columbia is convicted of bowing to demands of those who think their TV is broken when they see black bars on their set. Educate, don't capitulate.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Deleted Scene
* Talent Files