Judge Dave Packard thinks this railroad could use a little more magic and a little less sucking.
Our review of Thomas And The Magic Railroad, published November 17th, 2000, is also available.
Little Engines CAN Do Big Things.
The Rev. Wilbert Awdry's charming Thomas the Tank Engine, star of countless books, toys, and videos, makes the leap to the big screen in his first full-length feature. One would expect the film to be in capable hands with Britt Allcroft, creator of the popular Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends and Shining Time Station television series, handling the writing and directing duties. Unfortunately, the film is a complete disaster. An incredibly dull story, the inexplicable focus on live actors instead of Thomas and his many Island of Sodor friends, and one of the worst acting performances you have to see to believe combine to form a train wreck of a movie.
Facts of the Case
The enchanting Island of Sodor is bustling with activity as Thomas and his friends steam to and fro, completing their tasks. The peace is soon disrupted by the arrival of Diesel 10, a cantankerous diesel engine with sinister plans for the inferior steam-powered trains. Diesel 10 and his toothy metal claw, Pinchy, are accompanied by his two dimwitted lackeys, Dodge and Splatter.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Shining Time, a quaint little town outside of Thomas' magical world. Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin) jaunts between Shining Time and the Island of Sodor via the use of a magic gold dust (street name "Sparkle") that he keeps in his whistle. Island bigwig Sir Topham Hatt, on vacation with his old lady (seriously-she's Lady Hatt), has asked Mr. Conductor to keep an eye on things while he's away. Of course, Mr. Conductor's plate is soon heaped with generous helpings of problems. The gold dust supply is suddenly dwindling. The titular magic railroad (think of it as a kid-friendly wormhole) that connects the two worlds is losing energy. If all that isn't enough, Diesel 10 schemes to find and destroy a magical lost steam engine. This will put a lethal crimp in the production of gold dust, leaving Diesel 10 free to rule over the steam engines he loathes.
The lost engine, Lady (no relation to Sir Hatt's better half), is holed up in Muffle Mountain by Burnett Stone (Peter Fonda), a morose grandpa who mopes about lamenting the death of his wife and his past failures with Lady's care. A boy named Patch (Cody McMains) pesters from time to time, but there is no joy in this mountain lair. Even a visit from his granddaughter, Lily (Mara Wilson), fails to evoke a single smile. Stone is appropriately named; he is as lifeless as the dusty Lady he still caresses. Creepy.
Mr. Conductor calls upon his cousin, Junior (Michael E. Rodgers), for help in finding the family's source of gold dust. Junior is a laid-back surfer dude who would much rather stay at the beach and wait for that "perfect wave," and it's no surprise to learn that Junior has blown through his stash of Sparkle as well. Mr. Conductor's only remaining option is to decipher a clue left near a Sodor windmill that may hold the answer to the gold dust issue.
Mr. Conductor slowly deciphers the riddle as Thomas and Lily realize that a missing coal truck is a key to bringing Lady to life. Patch brings back some of the special Island of Sodor-grade coal, and Grandpa Stone shows the first hint of a pulse as he shovels it into Lady's boiler. Soon, Lady is steaming and chugging into the magic railway, leaving Technicolor swirls in her wake. Gramps is all smiles (yes, it took a train-not his granddaughter-to turn that eternal frown upside-down), but Diesel 10 and Pinchy have other plans. They're in hot pursuit of Lady, her human cargo, and Thomas. The chase comes to a stone bridge high over a Sodor river. Lady and Thomas make it across the bridge as it begins to collapse. Diesel 10 gives it the old college try but plummets to a barge in the river below.
The gang figures out the link between Lady's swirls and gold dust, and soon all is well again in Shining Time, the Island of Sodor, and the magic railroad that connects them.
Let's begin with the story. It's dull. Mind-boggling dull. How do the filmmakers expect the movie's target audience of Thomas-loving toddlers with their short attention spans to sit still for 84 minutes, when the adults are clawing at their own eyes for relief? There is way too much dialogue between the live actors, the story is overly complex for the kids, and pointless scenes are everywhere. I can't blame my three year old son for his drifting attention when we're subjected to Mr. Conductor munching vegetables in an attempt to figure out his gold dust problem.
Amazingly, Thomas and his friends are largely missing in action. It's a Thomas the Tank Engine movie, for crying out loud—why is the story centered around live actors who just happen to interact with Thomas' world, rather than the other way around? Why do many of the trains' appearances feel more like extended cameos? There's no excuse for the trains' lack of screen time. My son appeared to notice this problem as well, often asking me, "Where's Thomas?" I could only tell him I was wondering that myself. Don't get me wrong. I have no problems with putting live actors into a Thomas film, but make them secondary to what the film should be about: Thomas the Tank Engine, his friends, and the island where they live, work, and play.
Attempts at humor are few and far between, but that's probably a good thing since most of it didn't work. In one scene, Mr. Conductor changes his cap from the "thinking" side to the "sleeping" side as he readies for bed. I read the cap's text to my son (he's barely four), but he didn't chuckle. I didn't expect him to do so as I figured the joke, with the reading skills it required, was aimed at parents. Unfortunately, I didn't chuckle, either. In another scene, Mr. Conductor makes a telephone call (via flowers-don't ask) to Junior, who answers him with a seashell. Yes, you guessed it-a "shell" phone. Har-dee-har-har.
Peter Fonda turns in one of the most wooden performances ever put to celluloid. I had to check the Talent Files section of the disc to verify that this was the same Peter Fonda nominated for various acting awards throughout his career. I don't know if Peter had serious problems figuring out how to act in a family film or if he was just unhappy being a part of it all. The epitome of this unbelievable performance is when Lily comes back to Grandpa's mountain home. His delivery of the line "Oh, Lily, I'm so glad to see you" feels as pleasant as a steel-toed boot to the temple. At least the younger actors in the film could be excused of their lesser performances, but not surprisingly, they still outshine Fonda's. Alec Baldwin, who serves as narrator and also narrates some of the Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends video series, gives a performance that is the polar opposite of Fonda's. Baldwin throws himself into the Mr. Conductor character and seems to genuinely love every minute of it. He gives the film what little humor it has, and my son often laughed at his spry antics. Sadly, it's not enough to counter Fonda's efforts (or lack thereof). Kids, of course, won't notice Fonda's horrid performance, but for their parents sitting through an already-dull movie, it's fingers on a blackboard.
Parents who decide to test the waters (and their patience) by giving this film a shot should note that the youngest of viewers might find parts of the film a bit scary. In one scene, Diesel 10's Pinchy hangs Mr. Conductor over the side of a Sodor bridge, threatening to drop him if he doesn't spill the location to the special buffers that lead into the magic railroad. In another scene that takes place in a scrap factory, Diesel tries to push James and Junior into the molten, steaming muck below. A few scenes involve trains making their way through the Sodor countryside at night. The atmosphere is creepy, complete with shadowy trees and rolling fog, and little ones might find it intense.
The video, presented in full-frame, is largely free of grain with little edge enhancement present. For a film of this genre, it's one of the cleanest prints I've viewed. However, I found the film to be a bit dark. That's a shame, as much of the film (especially scenes on the Island of Sodor) is bursting with color.
The audio includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, but don't expect anything spectacular. In all fairness, the nature of the film doesn't require a wall-rattling soundtrack. The audio is sufficient to get the job done.
The DVD is extremely thin in its content. The deleted scene, "Sundae Surprise!," will get more laughs from children than the film itself. Talent files and a batch of trailers for this and other films round out the disc. When a DVD case touts subtitles, a web link, interactive menus, and scene selections as "special features," you can't expect much.
Don't waste your time or money on this film; there are far too many problems to make it enjoyable for anyone, young or old. If you want to introduce your child to the fantastic world of Thomas and his friends, opt for the far-superior Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends series of DVDs. Each DVD contains several episodes usually revolving around a common theme. Each episode is a kid-friendly five minutes in length and usually focuses on the antics of cheeky Thomas and his well-meaning friends. Some of the shorts are pure entertainment, while others deftly slide in a message or two.
The court hereby finds Thomas and the Magic Railroad guilty on all counts! Let the record show that the court is particularly appalled that an endearing, widely-loved children's character has be subjected to this kind of abuse. Britt Allcroft is sentenced to read all of the original Thomas the Tank Engine stories until the Rev. W. Awdry stops doing backflips in his grave. Court adjourned-now get out before I turn my Really Useful Gavel on somebody!
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