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'Thomas' and Friends Run Out of Steam

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 26, 2000


    'Thomas and the Magic Railroad' These talking locomotives are too hokey for words. (Destination Films)
The folks behind "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" are like the Little Engine That Could: They think they can, they think they can, they think they
can. . . .

Well, they should think again.

A cross between live action and animation, Thomas's epic adventure is a big, fat clunker starring the cheeky wittle choo-choo and the insufferably chirpy Alec Baldwin as Mr. Conductor. (Could somebody's career be derailing?)

Peter Fonda, the very definition of blah here, is also on board as Grandpa Stone, a morose tinkerer with a dark secret that threatens to destroy the Magic Railroad on the Island of Sodor. But a visit from his 12-year-old granddaughter (Mara Wilson) soon puts Gramps back on track.

Director Britt Allcroft, who created two TV series about Thomas and his friends, is making her feature debut along with the talking blue engine. Her story, overly ambitious given the simplicity of the inane material, pits Thomas and his steam-powered pals against the surly, self-important Diesel 10 and his dopey sidekicks, Splatter and Splotch. They are determined to take the chug-chug-chug out of the coal-fed engines.

Sir Topham Hatt, the island's vacationing transportation minister, summons Mr. Conductor from the real world of Shining Time (where he is just 18 inches tall) to see that the railroad runs smoothly while he's away. Once on Sodor, the railwayman discovers he's losing his golden sparkle, which allows him to travel between the human world and that of the trains. Nevertheless, he struggles to abide by the Sodor creed: "Be responsible, reliable and really useful."

Thomas (voiced by Edward Glen) and his friends, however, must fend for themselves while Mr. Conductor, with help from his carefree Scottish cousin (Michael E. Rodgers), searches for a new source of sparkle. One's dumb, the other's dumber, and neither is remotely funny if you're not in the target audience of 3-year-olds (not that a lot of what passes for comedy these days is aimed much higher).

The filmmakers wanted the film to echo the look of the TV series' trademark model animation.

While a digital stunt double was created for Thomas, the model train did most of his own scenes. Other special effects were employed, but at the director's insistence, they don't look special at all.

This coloring-book verite looks hokey compared to recent animated releases such as "Pokemon" and the claymated "Chicken Run." It's downright creepy when the locomotives talk without moving their mouths. Even though they sometimes change expressions, it looks as if their lips have been bolted shut.

What a pain in the old caboose.



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