Growing up in the late 1990s/early 2000s was an odd experience. There were children’s television shows being made, such as Rugrats, and Arthur, but some of us were more interested in re-runs of classic shows like Thunderbirds and Top Cat. One of the stand-out shows, to me at least, was an adaptation of the Reverend W. Awdry books The Railway Series entitled Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends which would later be shortened to Thomas and Friends. The show had begun airing on British television channel ITV in 1984 and was already preparing for its fifth series by the time I was born, but I became more interested in the original 26 episode run than anything that would air later. What I was not aware of at the time, and that I would not discover until my teenage years, was that Thomas and Friends had also made its way to the United States as segments in a show called Shining Time. It was this show that would ultimately be the foundation of the 2000 film Thomas and the Magic Railroad which would prove to be more prominent in my life than the initial show had been.
We follow Mr. Conductor from the small parish of Shining Time has he finds himself stranded on the Island of Sodor. In an attempt to recover the gold dust he uses to travel between these two places, he becomes involved in the search for a long lost engine whilst fending off the menacing Diesel 10. It is a far cry from the 5 minute running time of the original show, clocking in at 85 minutes and even outpaces the following feature length films which only manage an hour. As a film that is required to balance two previously established locations, I think it does rather well. I’ve always preferred the reality that the models on the Island of Sodor provide to the CGI that would come later. Some people find the faces of the engines to be horrifyingly vacant, but I prefer their solidity to the uncanny valley nature of their CGI counterparts. The film also manages to succeed in inserting live-action characters without it feeling like a green screen nightmare, which I think is commendable especially by 2000 standards. Meanwhile Shining Time provides its own sense of reality by being a whole set instead of locations on a studio back-lot. Perhaps growing up in a small town allowed me to be more at ease with the idea of a “quaint little town” than some others.
Where Thomas and the Magic Railroad seems to falter for many is the acting, which has always seemed like an odd criticism to me because this is a film for small children. I’d actually argue that Alec Baldwin’s performance as Mr Conductor is precisely the kind of performance we should be expecting here. He has a level of joy and charisma that is needed to keep the attention of small children and to carry a tale like this, regardless of whether he’s conversing with the rest of the characters or is by himself. If he didn’t have this kind of energy, as arguably the film’s main character, then the film simply wouldn’t work so well. On the other end of the acting spectrum is Peter Fonda who takes his despondent role as Burnett Stone with such an air of gravitas that I can’t bring myself to mock it. It ends up providing an interesting contrast between the two locations that these two characters exist in. Sodor is full of whimsical childlessness while Shining Time is moderately overshadowed by the seriousness of reality. When Fonda is allowed to be cheery and optimistic it comes off as slightly eerie instead of whimsical but I suppose that may be down to Fonda’s macho bravado as opposed to his actual acting ability. Caught in the middle of these performances is Mara Wilson as Lily Stone who bares the brunt of the criticism. Whilst I could dive into Wilson’s life at the time, it seems more fair to share an extract of her book Where Am I Now: True Stories Of Girlhood And Accidental Fame in which she talks about the struggles of childhood acting, puberty and life in general. If anything, she should be commended for turning in a performance where she remains likeable, although I’ve always found her to be a likeable person so perhaps I might be slightly biased. At the end of the day, I think that Mara Wilson is one of those actors that you either like or you don’t, and if you don’t like her then you won’t like her performance. I stand by her performance, though.
I’ve also heard it said that the songs and score are overly generic which, again, is an odd complaint for a film aimed at very young children. This is Thomas the Tank Engine, not some overly-hyped Oscar-bait, so of course the music is designed to simply be pleasant, and it is. On top of this, we are talking about music circa 1999 which is an era where the iconic Britney Spears was at the top spot on billboards so “pleasant” was very much the theme of the day. It all seems a little silly to be so upset over, especially when the artists were being tasked to provide an 85 minute movie out of a franchise that was usually only 5. As you can probably tell, I really like this film. It had a looming presence in my childhood and who doesn’t want to be reminded of those simpler times. I’ve wanted to write a passionate defence ever since a popular internet review channel tore it to shreds for “comedy.” That particular review show is one that has kept my passion for positive film discussion burning, by lacking in any substantial issues or by simply concocting them, in particular that one review. In a way, my personal opinions and feelings about Thomas and the Magic Railroad accompanied by that review were the foundation for the motto of this very site. Heck, I re-wrote half this script because I didn’t feel like I was doing the film justice. After 20 years, this film remains a moment of cinematic history by being the only live action Thomas film to date, and the last project of the show creator Britt Allcroft. We often talk about certain films capturing time in a bottle and this odd, whimsical, delightful little piece is one of them.
The franchise carries on, as franchises often do, having made the leap to CGI in 2008- the shows twelfth series. There have now been 24 series, 14 feature length specials and multiple books since 1984 but Thomas and the Magic Railroad remains the pinnacle of Thomas’ career. Even after 20 years.
Until Next Time…