Thomas And The Magic Railroad
It doesn't take much for a children's movie to get a free pass. As long as it doesn't blatantly shill a product, encourage antisocial behavior, or preach some abhorrent moral, who's going to complain? For such a notoriously undiscriminating audience, the same audience that paved the way for two Pokémon movies in the last year, it's probably best to take a "first do no harm" approach and hope it's the good stuff that makes the deepest impression. There are, after all, kid-oriented movies like Babe that work simply as great movies on their own terms. And then there are films like Gordy, 1995's other talking-pig movie, that fail so spectacularly on any terms that they deserve to be singled out for shame. Sadly, Thomas And The Magic Railroad, a borderline-incomprehensible big-screen adaptation of the charming British children's program Shining Time Station, leans toward the latter category. Peter Fonda stars, more or less, as a morbidly depressed grandfather who has never quite recovered from a childhood incident in which an evil, anthropomorphic diesel train chased a beloved steam engine named Lady until she ran out of coal. Helping him recover is granddaughter Mara Wilson, who is misdirected to the polyethnic, extremely pleasant village of Shining Time after she follows the directions of a deceitful but well-intentioned dog. Meanwhile, in the alternate universe inhabited by Thomas and other talking trains, Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin, billed after Fonda and Wilson but before Thomas), is thrown into a crisis when he realizes he's nearly depleted his supply of magic gold dust needed to travel between Shining Time and the land of trains. As Fonda's despondency grows, Thomas, Baldwin, and friends find themselves increasingly menaced by an evil diesel engine. Could it be the same diesel responsible for Lady's downfall? Maybe. That point is left about as unclear as anything else in the film, which is filled with such sloppy editing and slack storytelling that even the show's hardcore fans will likely have a hard time following it. In one scene, Fonda is shown near tears over the state of Lady. In the next, with no explanation, she's up and running and speaking in the voice of writer, director, and Thomas creator Britt Allcroft. In spite of the film's myriad flawsThomas' reduction to supporting-player status being among the most blatantFonda manages a truly soulful performance, even in scenes in which he's speaking to an inanimate train. As for Baldwin's wide-eyed, spring-stepped turn as Mr. Conductor (a part previously inhabited by Ringo Starr and George Carlin), at least he can't be accused of not trying.