Thomas Tanks

Mawkish, overcomplicated plot and British snobbery derail Thomas and the Magic Railroad

Peter Fonda is the top-billed star of Thomas and the Magic Railroad. The plot involves Fonda and Thomas the Tank Engine steaming across the country, with Steppenwolf blaring on the soundtrack, to Mardi Gras, a stash of dope taped under Thomas' cow-catcher. They have an acid trip with New Orleans hookers. Then, at the end, Fonda wistfully tells Thomas, "We blew it," just before rednecks blast them both with a shotgun from the cab of a pickup truck.

Just kidding. No such luck. Easy Rider was a model of straightforward, simple film storytelling compared to this, the big-screen debut of the TV series for preschool Luddites. I probably enjoyed watching Thomas and the Magic Railroadmore than the recent Pokémon the Movie 2000, because there were real human beings up there on the screen, but I'd still have to say that Thomas was the poorer movie by a considerable margin. Pokémon was an alienating experience for the uninitiated, but it clearly did speak to its target audience. The choo-choo's vehicle is mawkish and overstuffed with obligatory elements, and the audience with whom I saw the film whined and jabbered and clambered over each other's seats from opening to closing credits.

Thomas the Tank Engine began life in England in the early '40s, the hero of bedside yarns spun by W.V. Awdrey, an Anglican minister and railway enthusiast, to entertain his measles-afflicted son. The first of these stories, The Three Railway Engines, appeared in 1945. Awdrey went on to write dozens more Thomas books; his son, Christopher, all grown up, took up writing the series in the '80s.

But Thomas' status as a worldwide kid icon began in 1983, when British TV producer Britt Allcroft created the series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, in which Thomas' adventures were enacted by miniature trains with anthropomorphic faces. There's no real animation or puppetry to the shows (or the movie) -- the engines' mouths don't move in synch with the actors' voices, and their expressions change only in cutaways.

The show was imported to the States, with live-action wraparound sequences, under the title Shining Time Station. Ringo Starr, who narrated the British shows, played the diminutive "Mr. Conductor"; he was later replaced in the role by George Carlin, who in turn was replaced by, of all people, Alec Baldwin.

Baldwin also plays "Mr. C" in Thomas and the Magic Railroad, which Allcroft wrote and directed. Allcroft can't, at least, be accused of being condescending to her audience. She layers on so many plot twists, cuts around among so many characters and whips through so much portentous prophecy and rapid exposition that it's like seeing The Little Engine That Could rewritten by Tolstoy. Put simply, Allcroft got overambitious, and the resulting movie is grindingly dull and muddled and emotionally indifferent.

The magical Mr. Conductor works at the train station in the gentrified town of Shining Time. He gets trapped at the other end of the rail line, however, in Thomas' homeland, called the Island of Sodor, and Thomas, along with a little girl from the big city (Mara Wilson, who's getting a bit long in the tooth for this sort of thing), tries to help Mr. Conductor find magical "gold dust" so he can get his mojo back. Among the more smirk-inducing of the cryptic clues they have to go on is, "Stoke the magic in the mountain and the lady will smile."

Somehow this all relates to Fonda, who looks elegantly yuppie-stylish as the morose "Grandpa Burnett Stone," and whose long-delayed responsibility it is to revive a magical steam engine called Lady to prevent the takeover of the rail lines by diesel engines. It can hardly be insignificant that the sweet steam engines speak with lilting Brit accents, while the nasty diesel engines all sound American.

The whole thing seems awfully cozy with British class presumptions, actually. The finest status that a working-class engine can aspire to in the movie's idiom is to be "Really Useful." That phrase is repeated so often that it began to sound eerily Orwellian, and also disingenuous -- considering the restless racket the kids in the theater were putting up, I doubt that this could be judged a Really Useful Children's Movie.

 
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