- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2000

A certain amount of speculation lingered among the disenchanted after a screening of the lackluster kiddies' movie "Thomas and the Magic Railroad," which opens today.

Seeing Alec Baldwin cut down to size as a toy-land railway enthusiast called Mr. Conductor certainly was unusual. But the question remained: Was there another American film actor who would look more incongruous in fairy-tale surroundings?

Steven Seagal came to mind, then James Woods and John Malkovich. Alan Rickman seemed the funniest possibility among English misfits. One of the problems with the live-action cast members of "Thomas," a belated and insipid feature based on a children's TV series of the 1980s that originated in England and found an American haven on PBS, is that only Didi Conn, briefly celebrated for "You Light Up My Life" in 1977, seems an appropriate pixieish choice.

Mr. Baldwin now may have a film he can take his child to, but grown-ups who have been catching his act for the past decade or so may be ill-prepared to share the joy.

As the resident teen, Mara Wilson seems to be going through an awkward, listless phase. She's a pick-me-up only in contrast to Peter Fonda, cast as her despondent gramps, who is somehow responsible for dreaming up and then letting down the magical railroad, whose friendliest fixture is the title character, Thomas the Tank Engine, sort of the Little Engine That Could with a British accent.

Mr. Fonda's energy level is so low that it may register a negative reading. Maybe it's the atmosphere in his hideaway cave, where gramps moons over a steam engine in retirement called Lady, supposedly brutalized in the past by abusive diesels.

I'm not sure how they got the license to bully anyone in an imaginary frame of reference contrived by gramps, unless he has an unconscious evil side, but Mr. Fonda is persuasively down in the dumps about something.

I felt as mystified as Doc Brown in "Back to the Future" when Marty, the teen-age hero, keeps saying, "Heavy." I guess traditions of cause and effect may grow rather hazy on the mythical island of Sodor, where Thomas and his kind are said to operate.

The plot dabbles with a train vs. train rivalry: The diesels are still trying to throw their weight around. One pivotal animated illusion is out of whack: When the engines talk to each other or the big, bad diesels jaw at the nice little steamers, to be precise their eyes roll around to some extent, but their mouths do not move at all.

The engines' partially frozen facial configurations look penny-wise and pound-foolish. The audience will find it disillusioning to hear the toys supposedly talking and conclude that they must be ventriloquists, because their Plasticine lips certainly remain shut.

A good deal of lamentation preoccupies humans and toys. "Where did the magic go?" one asks. "Well, Lady, what are we to do?" ponders gramps. "How can I possibly say I'm useful now?" Thomas frets. "Why did I take my gold dust for granted?" Mr. Conductor asks himself. Or maybe that was his nutty nephew, a younger leprechaun impersonated by Michael E. Rodgers.

Mr. Conductor may be a little more dependent on his dust-filled whistle than is prudent or exemplary. Even the sight of Mr. Baldwin nibbling raw veggies like a bunny is less than reassuring as a wholesome fadeout.

"Thomas" is about as appetizing as Mr. C's snack of soggy lettuce leaf, miniature carrot and miniature celery stalk. It should have kids screaming for something sweet and tangy.

One out of four stars

TITLE: "Thomas and the Magic Railroad"

RATING: G

CREDITS: Written and directed by Britt Allcroft

RUNNING TIME: 79 minutes

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