Desperately trying to ride the coattails of pop phenomenon kiddie TV shows that have cashed in at the box office, "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" is an depressing failure.
Little more than a tediously protracted and befuddled episode of "Shining Time Station" -- the very, very low-rent Brit import program featuring a perky little steam engine with self-esteem issues and three facial expressions -- the whole movie rings with the resounding thud of a contrived effort that nobody put their hearts into.
The TV show is simplistic but earnest toddler fare featuring talking miniature trains with wildly rolling eyes on otherwise freeze-framed faces ("animated" by a few different inert expressions swapped on and off the engines' front ends from time to time). One might reasonably expect a feature film version to at least offer a little real animation to give the trains some big-screen personality and distinguish it from the shoestring show. But instead "Thomas" stuck to its paltry production values and minimal storylines, using what budget it had to lure lead actors with faded marquee power.
Alec Baldwin plays Mr. Conductor, a toy-sized train station attendant who zips between idyllic Shining Time Station in the real world and the magical Island of Sodor, where young Thomas the Tank Engine aspires to be "a really useful engine" when he's not being bullied by a mean, modern diesel with a snarling, gnashing clamp mounted on its top.
With only the vaguest of explanation of the hows and whys, the story opens with Mr. Conductor's special gold-dust alchemy petering out, somehow threatening the enchanted passage between the two lands. The only way he can get his power back and restore the Magic Railroad is if someone finds a long-lost steam engine. And that's about all the coherent explanation we get.
Peter Fonda plays a glum grandpa and former railroad enthusiast who lost his spark for no adequately explored reason, and Mara Wilson ("Matilda") plays his granddaughter, who finds her way to the magic island of talking trains and helps save the day.
Written and directed by Britt Allcroft, the TV show's creator, the story is moth-eaten twaddle about self-confidence and downtrodden grown-ups finding their inner children. It would be enough to send most human adults into sugar shock, if the entire cast weren't sleepwalking through their dialogue like they just want to get it over with and go home to wallow in self-pity over the downturn their careers have taken. The singular exception is Baldwin, who Tinkerbells his way through scene after scene like that gold dust of his is more narcotic than magic.
It's pretty apparent that the success of the dreadfully inadequate (yet -- dare I say it? -- superior) "Pokemon" movies paved the way for Thomas to make his leap to the multiplex. While the old-fashioned spirit of this children's fare is more honest and heartfelt than that toy-driven trash, the flimsy, slipshod scripting betrays the fact that very little enthusiasm went into the making of this movie.
Throughout "Thomas" I couldn't help but compare it to last year's completely entertaining Sesame Street movie "Elmo In Grouchland." That picture -- also a television derivative -- had the same low-end production values with cardboard sets, the same kind of half-baked plot (Elmo lost his blanket), and a cast of similarly mid-luster celebrities (Mandy Patinkin, Vanessa Williams). But it engaged the entire audience -- young and old -- with comedy, fun songs, interactivity (something this movie promises in the opening voice over and fails to deliver on) and winning characters.
Everything "Elmo" did right, "Thomas" does spectacularly wrong. Not only is it badly acted, tritely scripted and cheaply produced. It's also a complete and undeniable bore. How sad.