Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000)

“Make the most of tonight, Twinkle Toes; Because you won’t like tomorrow!” – Diesel 10

Rating: G
Director: Britt Allcroft
Writer: Britt Allcroft(“Shining Time Station” created by) Wilbert Awdry (based on the railway series by) Rick Siggelkow (“Shining Time Station” created by)
Stars: Alec Baldwin, Peter Fonda, Michael E. Rodgers, Cody McMains, Mara Wilson, Eddie Glen, Neil Crone, Linda Ballantyne
Release Date: July 14, 2000 (UK); July 21, 2000 (U.S.)
Run time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

THE PLOT:

(via Wiki)

Sir Topham Hatt and his family have left the Island of Sodor on holiday, leaving Mr. Conductor in charge of the engines. Gordon complains to Thomas that they could more than likely take care of themselves, when Diesel 10 races by, scaring both engines. Meanwhile, in Shining Time, Mr. Conductor is suffering a crisis; his supply of magic gold dust is alarmingly low and not enough for him to travel back from Sodor. At Tidmouth Sheds, Thomas is talking to James, when Diesel 10 arrives and announces his plan to rid Sodor of steam engines by finding and destroying Lady, the lost engine, the key to steam engines living in peace. Thomas leaves to collect Mr. Conductor. Lady is hidden in a workshop on Muffle Mountain after Diesel 10’s previous attempt to destroy her. Lady is unable to steam despite trying all of the coals in Indian Valley. At the sheds, the steam engines conclude that they should find Lady before Diesel 10, unaware that his oafish diesel minions Splatter and Dodge are spying on them. That night, Diesel 10 approaches the shed where the steam engines are sleeping and destroys the side of it with his claw. Mr. Conductor tries to keep him in order, but the gold dust fails and Mr. Conductor scares Diesel 10 away by threatening to pour a bag of sugar in his fuel tanks.

Burnett’s granddaughter, Lily Stone, is visiting her grandfather. She meets a dog named Mutt at the railway station. Lily meets Mr. Conductor’s cousin Junior and Stacy Jones before she is taken to Burnett’s house. Mr. Conductor calls his cousin, Mr. C. Junior, to help him with his gold dust crisis. That night, Percy and Thomas conclude there is a secret railway between Sodor and Shining Time. After spying on their conversation, Diesel 10 goes to the smelters yard to tell Splatter and Dodge of his plans to destroy Lady. Observing this, Toby distracts Diesel 10 by ringing his bell, causing Diesel 10 to knock one of the supports out from the shed with his claw, which collapses the roof on top of them. The next morning, Thomas collects six coal trucks for Henry, and one of them accidentally rolls through the buffers that lead to the secret railway. Later that day, Mr. Conductor is abducted by Diesel 10, who threatens to drop him off a viaduct unless he divulges the location of the buffers, but Mr. Conductor cuts one of the claw’s hydraulic hoses with a pair of tin snips, and is thrown free. He lands at the Sodor windmill, where he finds a clue to the source of the gold dust.

Lily meets Patch, who takes her to Shining Time, where she meets Junior again. Junior takes her through the Magic Railroad to Sodor, where they meet Thomas. Thomas is not happy to see Junior, but agrees to help him and Lily and takes them to the windmill, where they find Mr. Conductor. Junior climbs onto one of the sails and is thrown onto Diesel 10’s roof. Later that night, Percy finds that Splatter and Dodge have found the Sodor entrance to the Magic Railroad and goes to warn Thomas. Thomas agrees to take Lily home. While traveling through the Magic Railroad, Thomas discovers the missing coal truck, which he collects. Lily goes to find Burnett, leaving Thomas stranded. Thomas rolls down the mountain and re-enters the Magic Railroad through another secret portal. Meanwhile, Junior reunites with Mr. Conductor after managing to escape with James from Diesel 10 by using the last of his gold dust.

Lily finds Burnett in his workshop and he explains the problem getting Lady to steam. Lily suggests using a special coal from Sodor. Patch retrieves the truck and Burnett uses the coal to start Lady. Now steaming, Lady takes Burnett, Lily, Patch and Mutt along the Magic Railroad. Thomas arrives and the two engines return to Sodor, where they meet Mr. Conductor and Junior. Diesel 10 arrives with Splatter and Dodge, who decide to stop helping him. Diesel 10 chases Thomas and Lady to the viaduct, where the steam engines make it safely across, but the viaduct collapses under Diesel 10’s weight, and he falls and lands onto a barge filled with sludge.

Thomas, Lady and Burnett return to the grotto; Lily combines water from a wishing well and shavings from the Magic Railroad to make more gold dust. Junior decides to go to work on Sodor and Mr. Conductor gives him his conductor’s hat before sending him to another railway. Lily, Burnett, Patch and Mutt return to Shining Time, and Lady returns to the Magic Railroad while Thomas travels home into the sunset.

MY REVIEW:

This was the first, and only, live action film from the Thomas and Friends franchise ever to be released in theaters. Despite its star power, the movie is just not very good. The plot is convoluted – but considering the intended audience that’s fine. However, there were a couple of primary problems for me:

1) In a universe with talking trains, a certain amount of magic is fine. But the film includes a lot of new-for-the-movie magic that seems to be making fun of the audience. In one particular scene, Alec Baldwin’s “Mr. Conductor” is having some trouble with his memory. He then finds himself in a garden whereupon each bite of carrot and celery jogs his memory. As I am somewhat familiar with the Thomas universe, though not completely an expert, this felt like a jump into the direction of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and too far away from the familiar turf of a Thomas the Tank Engine story. The whole scene had the feel of “we can do what we want, whether it makes sense or not, because this is just a kids’ movie.” You should always respect your audience.

2) Peter Fonda’s performance is, well, bad. His character, per the plot, is supposed to be depressed over his inability to repair the magical engine, Lady. However, he plays the character as *so* depressed that it creates the appearance that he desperately does not want to be in the film. An the other side of that coin, Alec Baldwin’s narrator / Mr. Conductor combo delivers lines so exuberantly that he comes across as sarcastic or patronizing to an adult viewer. I did not appreciate the performance at all.

The critical reception of those performances, at the time of the film’s release, holds up well:

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film one star out of four, and wrote “(the fact) That Thomas and the Magic Railroad made it into theaters at all is something of a mystery. This is a production with ‘straight to video’ written all over it. Kids who like the Thomas books might kinda like it. Especially younger kids. Real younger kids. Otherwise, no.”

Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times gave the film a negative review, saying, “Mr. Baldwin’s attack – there’s no better way to put it – is unforgettable.”

Those criticisms are not really a problem for the film’s intended audience of small children, who likely will not notice the convoluted plot, that they are being mocked both by plot elements within the story, and by Alec Baldwin, and those same kids will likely not notice that Peter Fonda’s depressing performance drags the entire film down every time he comes on the screen. What they might notice, however, and have nightmares as a result, is a homicidal character named Diesel 10 who was introduced to the franchise in this movie. Put simply, Diesel 10 is too scary for a typical Thomas audience.

He was the replacement antagonist for the film, after the original antagonist was deemed so scary by test audiences that they demanded changes (more on that below.) Diesel 10 was more than bad enough. His face is almost always contorted into a frightening snarl. He attempts a murder in the movie. This is a franchise where the bad guy is usually just grumpy, or intentionally “not useful.” Introducing an evil character felt to me like introducing a serial killer into Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. It was standard practice in the 1980s to include a demonic villain in every show made for small children. Thomas, who did not have that type of enemy antagonist, was thus always a welcome respite from the programming of its time period. Taking the series in this direction was a bad decision.

Were there any good elements to this movie? Not many. I think that if you enjoyed the original TV series from the 1980s, visually, you might also enjoy the movie as it provides a lot of similar production value. Model trains are fun. Mara Wilson (who you might remember as Matilda) was a bright shining light, as Lilly, surrounded by strange performances from her bigger name co-stars.

Who is to blame for this mess of a movie? It might actually be the original test audiences. From wiki:

In a 2007 interview with Sodor Island Forums & Fansite, director Britt Allcroft revealed that before the film’s theatrical release, she and editor Ron Wisman were forced to completely change the film from how she had originally written it, by removing Burnett’s rival P.T. Boomer (played by Doug Lennox), who was the original antagonist and character originally responsible for wrecking Lady, because the test audiences at the March 2000 preview screenings in Los Angeles considered Boomer “too scary” for young children. Despite most of his scenes being removed, Boomer can still be seen briefly in one scene as a lost motorcyclist talking to Burnett.

Lily Stone (played by Mara Wilson) was intended to be the narrator of the story. Before filming, Thomas’s voice was provided by John Bellis, a British fireman and part-time taxi driver who worked on the film as the Isle of Man transportation co-ordinator and facilities manager. Bellis received the role when he happened to pick up Britt Allcroft and her crew from the Isle of Man Airport in July 1999. According to Allcroft, after hearing him speak for the first time, she told her colleagues, “I have just heard the voice of Thomas. That man is exactly how Thomas would sound!” A few days later, she offered the role to Bellis, and he accepted. However, the test audiences felt that to his voice sounded “too old” for Thomas, although Bellis did receive his onscreen credit as the Transportation Co-Ordinator, and his voice-over remains intact in the original UK trailer.

Crushed and angered by the changes, Bellis said he was “gutted”, but still wished the filmmakers well. In an April 2000 interview, following the changes, he said, “It was supposed to be my big break, but it hasn’t put me off and I am hoping something else will come along.” English actor Michael Angelis was the original voice of both James and Percy, but was recast for the same reason as Bellis. Australian voice actor Keith Scott originally voiced Diesel 10 (as evidenced in both the US and UK trailers), but he believes that he was recast because test audiences claimed that his portrayal was “too scary” for young children. Additionally, American actor Patrick Breen was the original voice of both Splatter and Dodge, but he was also subsequently recast.

The test audiences led to dramatic last minute rewrites and recastings. I wonder how much, if at all, this film reflected Britt Allcroft’s vision. Simultaneously, though, I also wonder whether her vision was just a bad one.

If you grew up on the Thomas the Tank Engine franchise, and want to check this out, do not expect a “really useful” movie.

4 thoughts on “Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000)

  1. scary stuff!
    and I’ve learned that audiences don’t know what they actually want, until they don’t want what you’re offering. I should be a movie reviewer and get paid big bucks.

    I don’t like that. Change that. It was horrible. Only hari kari can wipe away the stain of this horrible movie.

    I can say those things no problemo! 😀

    ps,
    I can’t actually comment on your blog itself. It comes up with an error about filling in the required fields. This comment is from the reader itself. Just wanted to let you know that WP broke something for you…

    1. That’s weird (about the comment thing.) People tell me that they occasionally have a problem with leaving a comment. The site has pretty standard settings. You comment semi-regularly… is that a problem you have very often?

      Yeah. It was a really bad movie. I have been told by a friend that his (then very young) son had nightmares about Diesel 10. I just don’t know how this was in theaters.

      1. This is the first time the comment thing has ever happened to me. I fully blame wordpress though, as they seem to go out of their way to break stuff whenever there is an update 🙁

        I’m not a Thomas fan (wrong age group, hahahaha) so I just let it blow by me…

  2. My knee jerk reaction when someone tells me that there is a problem with the site is to blame WP, but I always like to do the bare minimum of investigation before settling on that. Please let me know though if the problem persists. I’ll try to figure it out if I can.