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THOMAS AND THE MAGIC RAILROAD

by: James Berardinelli

Reviewing Thomas and the Magic Railroad is not an easy task, because it is unequivocally designed to appeal primarily, and perhaps exclusively, to the under-six crowd (not a group of which I am a member). Indeed, the target audience for the film is so young that those who are in synch with typical family fare may find this "juvenile" by comparison. Thomas and the Magic Railroad is not a family film; it has little to offer parents except the opportunity to bond with their children while watching a movie with a 0% chance of offending anyone in the audience. Adults without children would have to be remarkable individuals to find much of value here.

There is a built-in audience for this film; Thomas and the Magic Railroad is based on the popular children's TV series, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. Airing on PBS after an initial run on the BBC, Thomas has spawned a lucrative merchandising franchise. This isn't Pokemon - there are no trading cards, for one thing - but the similarities are hard to miss, especially now that both properties have made their way into American multiplexes. To be fair, first-time writer/director/producer Britt Allcroft seems to have a sincere desire to tell a simple story with a moral rather than allowing this product to be used as an 85-minute commercial for things that can be purchased at the nearest Toys R Us. Allcroft was the creative force behind the TV show, having adapted it from Rev. Wilbert Awdry's classic collection of short stories, The Railway Series. Nevertheless, I'm sure everyone involved expects sales of Thomas toys to increase once the motion picture has opened.

Thomas and the Magic Railroad tells the story of two places - the Isle of Sodor and the happy town of Shining Time - and the magic railroad that connects them. The island is populated by talking trains (the steam engines, painted in cheerful colors, are the good guys; the diesels are the baddies), while Shining Time and the nearby Muffle Mountain are inhabited by human beings. Once, long ago, it was possible to travel back and forth between Sodor and Shining Time, but that was before the train that made the passage was lost. Now, the only ones who can make the trip are Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin, reprising the TV role he inherited from George Carlin) and his cousin, Junior (Michael Rodgers). But the supply of gold dust they need to make the passage is dwindling just as the diesels are preparing to move against Thomas, James, and the other steam engines. Help is needed from the outside world, and it comes in the form of Burnett Stone (Peter Fonda) and his 11-year old granddaughter, Lily (Mara Wilson). Ultimately, the film teaches lessons about the need for determination to attain a goal, and that size doesn't matter.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Thomas and the Magic Railroad is its cheesy appearance. Like The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, this movie combines animation with live-action, but the approach is far from pleasing. The trains are inflexible models. Only the eyeballs move; when a change in expression is required, the model has to be traded out for another. The special effects represent the kinds of things that were used 30 years ago in made-for-TV specials. One could argue that the filmmakers were trying to match the comfortable look of the TV program, but, if that's the case, why bother making a movie in the first place? Visually, Thomas and the Magic Railroad reeks of cut corners and shoddy production values; passing everything off as a stylistic choice is dishonest.

What more is there to say? Most young children will appreciate the film, but no more so than its television inspiration. In terms of quality, the movie is no better than something designed for a direct-to-video release. Only the presence of a few big names, like Alec Baldwin, Peter Fonda, and Mara Wilson (the lead

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