Here's a warning to the parents who are sure to be dragged to "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" before summer's end: This isn't one of those kiddie flicks -- like "Toy Story 2" or "My Dog Skip" -- that's as much fun for adults as for little ones.
Instead, this good-natured but rather dull film inspired by British director/writer Britt Allcroft's 1984 TV series (itself an outgrowth of the popular children's books of the 1940s) appeals directly to tykes between the ages of three and six. It's a simple, syrupy-sweet story with clearly defined nice guys and meanies, and no real violence. There are few (if any) double entendres, wisecracks with the potential to fly over the heads of toddlers, or confusing plot points. There's a moral, too, something about the importance of "bringing to life the magic in all of us," as a long-lost train engine named Lady waxes.
Lady, long kept hidden away inside Muffle Mountain by sad-eyed widower and train collector Burnett Stone (Peter Fonda), is the solution to the woes that have befallen the Island of Sodor. It's usually a happy, innocent place, where the magical Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin, so exuberant that he's nearly creepy) whiles away the days interacting with Thomas and his train-engine friends. Occasionally, Mr. C utilizes his gold-dust "sparkle" to travel to the human-populated Shining Time Station.
Lately, though, the evil, modern-looking Diesel (anti-technology politics, anyone?) is threatening to take the steam engines out of circulation and spoil the fun for everyone. Mr. C and his cousin, Junior (Michael E. Rodgers), are all out of gold dust, so they're no help. Will Diesel succeed, or will Stone -- encouraged by his loving granddaughter, Lucy (Mara Wilson of "Matilda" and "Mrs. Doubtfire") and neighborhood boy Patch (Cody McMains) -- discover a way out?
There's a lot here to bug a grownup. The movie gives Thomas (voiced by John Bellis) an accent reflecting his birthplace. But grandpa Stone and Mr. Conductor are purely American, and Junior is a Scotsman through and through. Talented Native American actor Russell Means ("The Last of the Mohicans," "Natural Born Killers") is all but wasted in the cameo-like role of train driver Billy Twofeathers. He gets to wave, smile and recite a couple of lines (not in a British accent, thankfully), and that's about it.
Fonda seems bored by it all -- altogether disconnected from the process -- and turns in a humdrum performance. It's a letdown after his engaging work in "The Limey" and "Ulee's Gold."
Here's something even more disheartening: Thomas, cheery to a fault in this movie, rolls his eyes but doesn't move his mouth when he talks. Nor do the other locomotives, good and bad alike.
And did I mention that the entire picture (Allcroft's directorial debut) is dull, dull, dull, with about as much suspense as a pop-up book?
None of this should matter much to the younger set; it certainly didn't bother my 4-year-old son or the other kids of his age group who turned out for a recent screening. The broad twists and turns, and the chance to see a train set come to life in a magical fantasy land, are apparently enough to hold a child's interest. The rest of us will just have to wait for the express.
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