Review Podcast Rating

Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000)

Thomas the stank engine

What is this shit?

Listen, I love colorful nonsense. I have a deep, sentimental streak for kids movies, even toddler movies. I don’t even mind movies that are essentially extended and turbo-charged episodes of inane toddler TV shows. I think Blue’s Big Musical is absolutely terrific, for example. The Sesame Street extended specials are lovely.

But I cannot make head or tail of Thomas and the Magic Railroad. I have no idea what producer-director-co-writer Britt Allcroft was going for. It’s gibberish. It’s malarkey. I don’t know if it was lack of caring or lack of vision; I’d like to give Allcroft the benefit of the doubt and assume it all fit together in her head. But I cannot stress enough how incomprehensible and misguided this narrative is. I often had trouble following even the basic geography of the story — who was where and when — let alone the stakes or the character objectives.

The story, as best as I can tell it: There’s a shortage of magic gold dust on the fictional island of Sodor, inhabited by Cars-esque sentient trains with faces, including Thomas the Tank Engine. In the human world of Shining Time Station, Lily (Mara Wilson) visits her grandfather, Burnett Stone (Peter Fonda), who has a broken-down old steam engine named Lady that might be connected to the magic of the gold dust. (Also, Burnett is possibly in love with Lady, but Allcroft leaves that as subtext. Perhaps she was projecting.) It’s up to The Conductor (Alec Baldwin), who travels between train-inhabited Sodor and human-inhabited Shining Time Station, to sort the whole mess out. Even that synopsis gives the film too much credit, though. The scenes are arranged haphazardly and the dialogue feels like something spit out of Google Translate such that it’s always a mystery what exactly is happening and why.

The Thomas the Tank Engine franchise has a history dating back to the end of World War 2 as a book series by Wilbert Awdry, an English children’s author who went professionally by “The Rev. W. Awdry.” Awdry published 26 Sodor books. Eventually, both a British and American show were created (Allcroft creating the long-running American show), along with a multimedia merchandising empire, which is how so many ’80s and ’90s kids encountered the iconic blue #1 steam engine.

If the movie had stuck with the Thomas the Tank Engine bread and butter of following the trains on a couple of low-stakes and episodic adventures, perhaps with a thin framing story to tie them together into something feature length, this really could’ve been a charming film. (Again, see Blue’s Big Musical.) The train miniatures have a cozy and endearing quality to them. The diorama-style shots of landscapes constructed out of miniatures are lovely. The colors are bright and there’s a lot of love put into the production.

It’s such a shame, then, that the film is so invested in its epic saga and ensuring that every scene and scenario feeds the utterly incomprehensible mess. It means the film never has a solid foundation and flounders from start to finish.

The film is filled with story elements that have the approximate shape of an arc: There are villains, some diesel engines, but what they want is never stated. There’s some inter-dimension traveling that sees Lily travel to Sodor and Thomas to Shining Time Station for no clear purpose. There’s a second conductor who’s a stoner surfer, and maybe he snorted all the gold dust? (I’m not making that latter point up, there’s a couple lines suggesting it.) None of it really pieces together.

The cast is a major roller coaster. I quite like Baldwin as The Conductor. He’s got a manic, spry energy that fits the tone well. He’s very game for the Sodor silliness, and he even tries to make something of the script. The acting goes downhill from there, though. Wilson is passable as Lily, but she’s stuck in a no man’s land between child star and teen star, and neither she, nor certainly the script, knows quite how to play it: adorable, introspective, precocious, etc.?

Fonda, though, is an outright catastrophe. He’s struggling to make it through takes and probably reading cue cards. It’s not often you see acting talent so utterly checked out on their material.

Perhaps some of the blame of the story falls on its hasty, last-minute hack job that cut out major characters scenes, including an important villain named PT Boomer. Apparently test audiences found the story some combination of scary and boring, so Allcroft and co. massively reworked the film at the eleventh hour in the editing room. Some years later, the original cut leaked. I haven’t seen it, although I have seen some of the deleted scenes. The sense I get, corroborated by my podcast co-host Brian who watched the entire original cut, is that no version of this story is worth the celluloid it’s printed on. Apparently even in its form initially conceived by Allcroft, the story is still hogwash. (Allcroft, by the way, makes a cameo near the end of the film as the voice of Lady, the magic Smurfette train. Shout out to Brian, once again, for calling this Allcroft’s “trainsona.”)

Thomas and the Magic Railroad is not a bad movie because it’s pitched at kids. It’s not a bad movie because it’s based off of a quaint and outdated intellectual property trying to make a splash. It’s not even a bad movie because it suffered troubled production. Thomas and the Magic Railroad is a bad movie because it’s a broken piece of storytelling from the inside out.

Is It Good?

Very Not Good (1/8)

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