It’s just as well the Rev. Wilbert Awdry’s name is nowhere to be found on the credits of “Thomas and the Magic Railroad,” as the author of the ’40s British kidtomes from which this is a feature spinoff would probably roll over in his grave. Part model animation, part live feature, this Americanized further adventure of Thomas the Tank Engine is, culturally, all mish-mash. Though its anklebiter audience won’t be troubled by such things, pic will still need fast playoff when it rolls out stateside July 26, as it can hardly compete at a tech level with more sophisticated sprigfare. Half-inch and the tube will propel Thomas to a longer life.
Awdry’s series of books, little known outside the U.K., achieved worldwide fame through director Britt Allcroft’s 1984 British TV series, “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends,” narrated by Ringo Starr. Allcroft has since made an entire career out of the talking trains, though this U.S.-produced pic, shot in the Isle of Man, Toronto and Pennsylvania, is her feature film debut.
The TV series was set in an idealized England (aka the Island of Sodor), full of cozy humans like Mr. Conductor, his boss Fat Controller (here given the more PC name Sir Topham Hat) and cuddly steam trains threatened by the more modern Evil Diesel.
In the movie, the Brit-voiced Thomas and his pals inhabit the very English-looking fantasy land of Sodor, while the very American-garbed and sounding Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin) flies back and forth from there to the real-world Shining Time, a very Isle-of-Man-looking village where kids play baseball on the green.
Plot centers on Diesel’s efforts to relegate Thomas & Co. to the sidings, and those of Mr. Conductor and his young cousin Junior (Scots actor Michael E. Rodgers) to stop him. Unfortunately, the two miniature humans are all out of magical gold dust, by which they can transport themselves between Sodor and Shining Time.
The only one who can help Thomas & Co. is the Lost Engine, a puffer called Lady who was once driven off the tracks by Diesel. Lady is secreted inside Muffle Mountain by devoted train collector Burnett Stone (Peter Fonda). But a visit from the Big City by his 12-year-old grand-daughter, Lucy (Mara Wilson), who hooks up with local kid Patch (Cody McMains), spurs grumpy old Stone into action.
The charm of Thomas & Co. chugging through model landscapes is consistently undercut by the live-action sequences, which bring the pic crashing back into a more graceless modern reality. Baldwin throws himself agreeably enough into the all-smiling role of Mr. Conductor, but Fonda looks seriously miscast throughout, as if he’s wandered on to the wrong movie set.
Compared with contempo kidpics, the whole thing also looks rather low-tech. The faces on the front of the trains are expressive enough but, though their big round eyes roll continuously, the budget clearly didn’t stretch to making their mouths move as well, which seriously scuppers the whole concept of talking trains in a big-screen production.
Model unit work, done in Toronto, is brightly lensed and smoothly accomplished, though given a curious feel by having the backgrounds always out of focus. Live-action photography is OK, but given no special luster by the color processing. Etymologists will note that the words “railroad” and “railway” are both used throughout the pic, further adding to the cultural confusion.