Rated G - Running Time: 1:25 - Released 7/26/00

For parents who like wholesome children's entertainment, Thomas & The Magic Railroad, the descendant of TV's Thomas The Tank Engine and Shining Time Station, may come as a welcome addition to the local cineplex. For Thomas's producers, however, the film may turn out to be a disappointment: its mild style and lackluster performances will not be enough to stand up against the unusual glut of kids' films released this summer. After The Road To El Dorado, Dinosaur, Titan A.E., Chicken Run, The Kid, and Pokemon, Thomas is pale competition. Still, it does provide one of the more "family oriented" themes offered, fitting snugly into the sugary-sweet, toddler-aimed category right between Barney and the Teletubbies. It also contains some famous names in the cast, like Alec Baldwin and Peter Fonda, with no one from the original TV show except Didi Conn (a.k.a Frenchy, the beauty school dropout in Grease). However, Conn's presence is so limited, her role is more like a featured cameo than a principal part.

I've always thought that the whole Thomas franchise (based on the 1940s stories by Rev. Wilbert Awdry) was little more than a clever vehicle for writer/producer/director Britt Allcroft to show off his love of model trains. The sets are indeed a hobbyist's dream, with every detail you could imagine — towns, mountains, lakes, bridges, tunnels . . . and numerous multicolored engines, all sporting interchangeable faces (with a plethora of different expressions) attached to their fronts. This film's story, however, leaves a little to be desired. It takes place mainly on the island of Sodor, where train engines live and cavort together among little plastic accessories, probably in about G scale. It seems that the evil Diesel has been threatening the steam engines with his attached overhead claw (the sort of device used to pick up trash or debris), which he calls "Pinchy." In fact, he is responsible for the disappearance of Lady, the fabled "lost engine" hidden somewhere in the mountain, for which he still searches, intending to do her in for good. No explanation is made as to why Diesel is so angry at Lady and the other steam engines; perhaps he was unable to perform in some attempted coupling and she told the others of his shortcomings. Anyway, he acts as the neighborhood bully to Thomas (voice of John Bellis) and the others, not to mention Mr. Conductor (Baldwin), the miniature guardian of the trains.

Mr. Conductor is able to deal with Diesel until he runs out of the magic gold dust that allows him to transport wherever he wants to go, and he must call on his Australian beach-bum cousin Junior (Michael Rodgers) to find him some more. Tangentially included in this ponderous, overly complex plot is Burnett Stone (Fonda), the sullen railman who failed to protect Lady against Diesel long ago and can't stop beating himself up for it, and two teens (Mara Wilson and Cody McMains), whose primary function is make kids in the audience feel that it's not completely a story about adults.

Apart from the numerous mechanical cast members, Baldwin is really the star here, and his approach to the role of Mr. Conductor is decidedly wimpier and more patronizing than that of Ringo Starr and George Carlin, who each played the role at different times on TV (Starr was even nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal). While Starr and Carlin both endowed Mr. Conductor with a friendly hipness, Baldwin mainly talks down to his audience as if they were mentally disabled. But the part is written differently, too: on TV, Mr. Conductor is a wise, confident little man with the answers to everyone's questions; here he is mostly a helpless victim, lost, confused, unable to solve his problems. Maybe he's had too much of that magic dust.

While a colorful presentation of model trains, Thomas & The Magic Railroad is a strange, brooding story vastly different from its TV ancestor, and it will soon slip indistinctly from the public consciousness and into video stores, which is where it belongs. ***

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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