She has done some things right: she's cast big stars, like Alec Baldwin as the Lilliputian Mr. Conductor, and Peter Fonda as the sad grandpa, Burnett Stone; her production designers have continued the show's happy train colors, with bright blues and reds, and have added bonus design touches to the live sets and wardrobe; her script applauds positive thinking, creativity, and foiling the bad guy. It's just that all of this is mired in a clunky set of hole-filled plots, confusing enough to make me want to interrogate the little guy sitting in front of me.
The story doesn't really revolve around one particular character or plotline, but the simple gist is that young Thomas and the other shiny steam engines are being pushed around by a mean, yucky diesel with a scary set of pinchers. At the same time, Mr. Conductor, played with a childlike earnestness by Baldwin, has run out of magic gold dust, and thus may be stuck on the wonderful island of Sodor, never to return to the train station at Shining Time. Meanwhile, Burnett lives in a kind of tunnel/cave, lamenting his inability to revive the beautiful steam engine Lady, with Fonda playing Burnett like a mopy actor waiting for the next Ulee's Gold.
Anyway, he's visited by his granddaughter from the big city, who gets her own dose of gold dust, allowing her to shrink and ride the "magic railroad" (Hello Alice!), joining the effort with Mr. Conductor and the cute talking trains. How do these kids follow all this?!
After a while, the film, with its awkward order of scenes, doesn't live up to the promise of the sweet idyllic feel of the introduction, and is a bit boring. It's dragged down further by generally flat acting. Mara Wilson, the cute kid from Mrs. Doubtfire, is now a cute adolescent as the granddaughter, but can't act a lick. Her young friend, played by Cody McMains, is worse, and the stiff dialogue doesn't help matters. And Fonda's sleepwalking sealed it for me that I wasn't the only unexcited one.
I picture this film existing years from now on cable, where college kids will turn the stilted lines and occasional psychedelic trips and colors into some kind of drinking or smoking game. When one particular train rides triumphantly through a magic palette of wispy, primary colors, look out! It'll be like the original Fantasia's 1963 re-release, but for a new generation of stoners. For now, though, I think the little kids dig it for what it is.
After the movie, I spoke with a 5-year old, a 3-year old, and their moms. I learned that the 3-year old was the one leading the cheering section in the theater, and the 5-year old said the movie was "awesome". What the hell do I know?
Run time: 85 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 26th July 2000
Box Office USA: $2.0M
Distributed by: Destination Films
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 19%
Fresh: 13 Rotten: 54
IMDB: 3.5 / 10
Director: Britt Allcroft
Producer: Britt Allcroft
Screenwriter: Britt Allcroft