Dir: Britt Allcroft. 2000. UK-US. 86 mins.
Prod co: Destination Films, Gullane Pictures. Co-prod: Mark Jacobson. Domestic dist: Icon Distribution. Int'l Sales: Kathy Morgan International. Exec prods: Charles Falzon, Nancy Chapelle, Barry London, Brent Baum, John Bertolli. Prods: Allcroft, Phil Fehrle. Scr: Allcroft. Dop: Paul Ryan. Prod des: Oleg Savytski. Ed: Ron Wisman. Music: Hummie Mann. Main cast: Peter Fonda, Alec Baldwin, Mara Wilson, Didi Conn.
This Thomas owes more to the television series devised by Allcroft in the 1980s than to Reverend Awdry's charming children's stories, laced here with numerous human characters that leave the talking trains shunted on to a siding. British viewers will also be dismayed at the extent to which the tales have been Americanised, from the "railroad" in the title to the sight of people playing baseball on a traditional English village green and the renaming of the Fat Controller as the non-sizeist Sir Topham Hat.
With scant appeal to adults in search of nostalgia, the film will find its audience among very small and undiscerning viewers. It's unlikely to hold out long in cinemas against technically superior children's fare like Dinosaur or Stuart Little - which opens in Britain and other European markets this summer - but its timetable should be extended to take in lengthy trips to the video shelves.
The needlessly complicated story moves between five different settings: the Island of Soder, land of the talking trains; the small railroad town of Shining Time; an Indian Valley; an anonymous North American big city; and Muffle Mountain, where a reclusive widower (Fonda) nurses an unhealthy obsession with a broken female steam train. Thomas' cosy world is threatened by the machinations of an evil diesel engine who has caused Mr Conductor (Baldwin), an 18" tall man with the ability to travel between all these places, to lose his miraculous powers.
The trains bear a reasonable resemblance to Awrdy's original designs but, while their eyes swivel manically, their faces and lips don't move when they speak, resulting in some long and visually dull dialogue scenes. Other special effects, like Mr Conductor's magic sparkle dust, are just adequate, as are the human cast, with the exception of Baldwin, who brings a humorous dash and twinkle to his role.