REVIEW: Thomas and the Magic Railroad
Produced by: Britt Allcroft, Phil Fehrle
Written by: Britt Allcroft
Edited by: Ron Wiseman
Cinematography by: Paul Ryan
Music by: Hummie Mann, Mike O’Donnell
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Peter Fonda, Mara Wilson, Cody McMains, Michael E. Rodgers, Eddie Glen, Neil Crone, Didi Conn, Russell Means, Kevin Frank, Susan Roman, Colm Feore, Britt Allcroft
Based on the TV series Shining Time Station and the books by Reverend Wilbert Awdry
Pardon me, as I have been absent from writing for over a week. Much of that was because I had had a pretty busy and/or stressful few weeks, and, on Halloween, I celebrated my 27th birthday, which meant that, on top of working, I was churning out a final Halloween 2013 review of Alien and then also getting my apartment in presentable condition for my family to come celebrate, so I took it upon myself to take a week off and enjoy a couple days of no obligations other than work. I did decide to work on this review sooner, but then my birthday present to myself arrived – a shiny new Nexus 7 – and I got a bit carried away with playing around with it. But, I’m back and writing again, and I figured what better way to pick up again than with a completely offbeat, unexpected, and completely unrelated-to-Halloween movie?
Funny enough, though, was that, when I was soliciting some suggestions for Halloween movies, one of my friends – the one who had suggested Oscar – jokingly suggested Thomas and the Magic Railroad. Apparently, while the world had almost immediately forgotten that this movie existed, his little brother would go on Magic Railroad binges on a regular basis, so I can kind of understand why such a suggestion would creep up on him with my request, even in jest. I agreed that, while I wouldn’t actually do it for Halloween, however, I’d be more than happy to review his oddball suggestion afterward.
I was only vaguely familiar with the actual movie, if only because I had watched the original Shining Time Station as a kid when it aired on PBS (a station I was not exactly allowed to watch because of my father’s belief that it would instill a liberal bias in his children) primarily because it initially featured Ringo Starr as the Conductor, and even as a kid, I was a pretty big Beatlemaniac. Nothing against George Carlin, but, not knowing who he was at the time, I was fairly upset when I discovered that they had pretty much recast the role with someone who was most definitely not one of The Beatles. In fact, that may have been the only reason why I watched it because I was never really a fan of the Thomas & Friends shorts, either – I endured them, in fact. Gradually, I grew out of the series, and by the time that its big screen adaptation was released, I was already nearing age 14 and was already only feeling a mild bit of nostalgia for the franchise upon being reminded of its existence, barely even caring now that it lacked one of The Beatles and had instead put the also-not-a-Beatle actor Alec Baldwin in Ringo’s place.
I understand that Thomas is rather beloved in England, despite fairly blatantly being about pushing any number of political ideas that people are convinced will brainwash your children’s minds, but I simply do not understand the appeal – perhaps it’s the genial, polite-sounding narration and dialogue between the characters that I’m certain very persnickety parents favor over the manic madcap shenanigans of lesser cartoons. I’d say it was lucky for us Yanks, then, that they saw fit to base the movie version more on Shining Time Station as a whole than just the shorts featured in the original British production, but then that would be to suggest that the movie was any better for it. While the integration of the two elements is rather thorough in this Full-Length Big Screen Adventure, working in the live action actors with the animatronic puppetry and miniature scenery of the scenes set in Thomas’ homeworld of Sodor just results in a stylistically ugly film that combines bad special effects (even for the time) and actors who have done much better work elsewhere.
The plot is convoluted, almost to the point of nonsense, as if multiple plot threads from smaller productions were haphazardly woven together in an attempt to make a feature-length film. It’s borderline nonsense, but if you can just ignore random crap like the dog that leads the young female lead to the proper train, there is some semblance of plotting. Let’s see if I can gather it all together…
Mr. Conductor has been left in charge of the island of Sodor, where Thomas and his friends live and, apparently, are in a constant competition to be the most “useful” train on the island. Diesel 10 is a gas-powered locomotive, however, and he hates the steam engines, and so he’s plotting to get rid of them all. Mr. Conductor, meanwhile, wasn’t very good at planning his trips between Shining Time Station in our world and Sodor, as he’s run out of the gold dust that he uses in his magic, making it impossible to transport between the worlds. As if there weren’t enough problems already, there’s also an older gentleman who dotes on a broken steam engine that he’s been trying to repair all these years after a fateful encounter with Diesel. His granddaughter is coming to town to visit him, as well, but in the process, she is accidentally transported to Sodor by C. Junior – Mr. Conductor’s slacker British cousin who is even more lax about his usage of gold dust, which you would think they would be more careful about, given the reverence they seem to have for it. Naturally, this also means that Lily gets trapped in the nightmare work state that is Sodor, and they have to figure out a way to get her out. What will they ever do?
Apparently, they’ll rely upon some random crap happening, such as the completely accidental discovery of the titular Magic Railroad between the two worlds – the journey to find it and go through it lasts only about three minutes – or the resolution regarding how Mr. Conductor gets his gold dust back. The film constantly reminds us that we should believe in magic, but what happens there isn’t really magic so much as a lucky guess. The solution to the problems in the movie are so quick, easy, and even illogical that it’s to the point of being absurd – as if the filmmakers were worried about letting the kids in the audience worry about anything bad ever happening, except for maybe Peter Fonda’s character being so very eloquently depressed over his broken train. Even Diesel 10, despite his malicious intent to rid the world of steam engines, is rarely anything more than a bully with little in the brains department. I get that this is a kids’ movie, but could we at least get a competent cartoon villain so we have something to root against? This is one of those movies where you kind of start hoping that the villain just starts doing randomly horrible things just to make a break from the banality of what’s actually happening on screen. (And while we’re picking on that particular character, just how the heck does a vehicle that is unable to go anywhere except by predetermined paths and is so reliant upon others to provide him with fuel get away with anything as extraordinarily evil as technological genocide, anyway?)
This movie is just terrible. The weird mesh of stock facial expressions and eye movements on the puppet trains is distracting and unsettling. The special effects are not just unconvincing, they’re embarrassing, even for 2000. Not only that, the load of boring that this movie unloads upon viewers is immense – I’m not kidding when I say I fell asleep multiple times while writing this very review. The boring is so immense that it becomes a blackhole for fun and adventure, slowly and excruciatingly sucking the life out of everything, including actors like Peter Fonda and Alec Baldwin, who have proven their talents elsewhere but somehow got caught in the event horizon of this production. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out if this was the film that convinced former-child-star-turned-Cracked-writer Mara Wilson to get out of the acting game before she wound up being one of those D-list celebrities headlining the kinds of depressing direct-to-video flicks that still think Ernest Borgnine is a bankable name. This film may not have been a wise career choice as an actor, but it’s possible that she’s avoided some kind of child star/has-been hell because of it. Apparently some kids do find some enjoyment here, given that my friend’s brother loved it for a while, but at least he has an excuse – he was a little kid, and little kids do not always use the best judgment. What are the filmmakers’ excuses, I wonder?
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 0.5 / 5