Wednesday July 26, 2000
To those age 5 and under for whom "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" will be the first theatrical movie, the following words of encouragement are offered: It gets better. Bigger anyway, for sure. The stories will make more sense. The acting will improve. And no one will try to put anything over on you on the big screen.
All right, that last sentence is a lie. But it's as harmless as "Thomas and the Magic Railroad."
Admittedly, one begrudges the sweet wholesomeness of the whole Thomas the Tank Engine universe at one's peril, especially given the emphasis it places on the values of cooperation, imagination and--how do the steam engines of Sodor put it?--usefulness. Is that really a word? Better you should ask whether Sodor is a real place. Or, for those with no wee ones at home, what Sodor is.
As millions of PBS viewers can tell you, Sodor is a magical island mostly inhabited by means of transportation that talk without moving their lips. Prominent among the many steam engines hauling freight along Sodor's tracks is Thomas, a sweet-natured little blue engine that could--and often does.
Other engines on the island--gruff Gordon, persnickety Percy and jittery James--aren't as nice as Thomas. But none is as mean as Diesel, who wants to chomp all the steam engines into scrap metal so he can rule the rails unencumbered by the slower steamers.
Only Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin) can keep Diesel in line, so to speak. But the jaunty, whistle-blowing master of the mystic arts finds his gold-dust mojo on the blink and can't even make the normally easy transit from Sodor to the relative reality of Shining Time Station.
What's wrong? Apparently, it has something to do with the deep, dark funk of Burnett Stone (Peter Fonda), a hermit hiding out in a mountain with a no-longer-enchanted engine called Lady. His granddaughter Lily (Mara Wilson) tries, sort of, to get him out of his melancholy stupor and save Sodor from Diesel.
Baldwin looks like he's having a lot of fun, while Fonda looks like he's having a slow-motion stroke. It's good to see, however briefly, Didi Conn, reprising her TV role as Shining Time stationmaster Stacy Jones. (But where's Schemer?)
Britt Allcroft deserves all the honors she's received over the years for cultivating Thomas' archives. But as the writer-director of "Magic Railroad"--which blends live action, digital effects and animation--she lays thick, goopy layers of uplift on what should (one would think) be lighter on the heart and stomach.
Thomas and the Magic Railroad, 2000. G. A Destination Films and Gullane Pictures, Barry London/Brent Baum presentation, released by Destination Films. Director Britt Allcroft. Producers Britt Allcroft, Phil Fehrle. Executive producers Charles Falzon, Nancy Chapelle, Barry London, Brent Baum, John Bertolli. Screenplay by Britt Allcroft based on the television series "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends" and "Shining Time Station." Cinematographer Paul Ryan. Editor Ron Wisman. Costume designer Luis M. Sequeira. Music Hummie Mann. Production designer Oleg M. Savytski. Art director Lucinda Zak. Set decorator Cheryl Dorsey. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Alec Baldwin as Mr. Conductor. Peter Fonda as Burnett Stone. Mara Wilson as Lily. Didi Conn as Stacy.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times