Thomas & the Magic Railroad
directed by Britt Allcroft
(Destination Films, 2000)

Thomas the Tank Engine has always been magical for the preschool set: talking engines chugging along with expressions of contentment, amazement or anger frozen on their faces while a miniature Mr. Conductor relates a story. In the recently released film Thomas & the Magic Railroad, director Britt Allcroft and company take the magic a step further as we learn about the magical connection between the railway fantasy island of Sodor and the real world Shining Time Station.

The film goes beyond a little guy telling a tale to encompass a legendary lost steam engine, a devious diesel with designs to find and eliminate her and her powers, and the portals between the two lands. Peter Fonda plays brooding grandfather Burnett Stone, who has lost the wondrous spirit of his youth, mostly because he allowed the dastardly diesel to harm the charmed and charming steam engine Lady. He's attempted to reconstruct her, and he frequently visits her in his workshop inside the mountain to mourn his error and his wife's death. Fonda puts as much emotional depth into the role as the script allows. Mostly he's sad, but that's OK because his granddaughter Lily (Mara Wilson) has arrived to cheer him up and become embroiled in the train situation.

Alec Baldwin has a much more entertaining role as Mr. Conductor, the 18-inch-tall hero who regularly transverses the two worlds by tooting a whistle, billowing gold dust into the air and disappearing amid the sparkling swirls. Baldwin creates a character who's innocent, playful, determined to be "really useful," and resourceful, though not adverse to accepting help from trains. He's blessed with some of the more clever lines, and his Mr. Conductor borrows a bit from Alice in adapting to realm crossing. When he's lost and confused, a rabbit leaves a note and healthful veggies that he nibbles seeking enlightenment.

Unfortunately, with the nasty diesel trying to de-magic and demoralize the island railway system, the mystical flow isn't working quite like it should, the transporting powder is gone and no one's told Mr. Conductor where to get more -- though there are a series of clues that may remedy that problem. A magical engine might help, too.

Merge these two characters' storylines and you have the plot of a 90-minute movie based on 5-minute moralistic blurbs with trains. It's not too intricate for the younger fans to follow and it's complex enough to keep the adults awake.

For the preschoolers, Didi Conn and Russell Means reprise their roles on the series as Stacy, Shining Time Station's manager, and Billy, the passenger train engineer. The favorite trains -- Thomas, James, Toby, Gordon and Henry -- regularly interact with each other in wittier dialogue than usual. Allcroft chose not to animate the train's faces beyond fixed mouths and rolling eyes, so they remain the children's familiar friends. Of course, the children in the audience seemed to enjoy Thomas's adventures the most.

For adults, the casting of Michael E. Rodgers as Mr. Conductor's Scottish cousin Junior is delightful. With his tousled blond hair and a surfer attitude, he steals scenes throughout beginning on the beach when he answers his "shell-phone" and agrees to rescue Baldwin's character -- eventually.

Overall, Thomas & the Magic Railroad is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon enjoying family time together.

[ by Julie Bowerman ]
(and Kyle)

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