Peter Fonda is the top-billed star of Thomas and the Magic Railroad. The plot involves Fonda and Thomas the Tank Engine steaming across the country, Steppenwolf blaring on the soundtrack, to Mardi Gras, a stash of dope taped under Thomas's cow-catcher. They have an acid trip with New Orleans hookers. Then, at the end, Fonda wistfully tells Thomas, "We blew it," just before rednecks blast them both with a shotgun from the cab of a pick-up truck!
Just kidding. No such luck. Easy Rider was a model of straightforward, simple film storytelling compared to this, the big-screen debut of the TV series for preschool Luddites.
Thomas the Tank Engine began life in England in the early '40s, as the hero of bedside yarns spun by W.V. Awdrey, an Anglican minister and railway enthusiast, to entertain his measles-afflicted son Christopher. The first book of these stories, The Three Railway Engines, appeared in 1945. Awdrey went on to write dozens more Thomas books; his son Christopher, all grown up, took up writing the series in the '80s.
But Thomas's status as a worldwide kid icon began in 1983, when British TV producer Britt Allcroft created the series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, in which Thomas's adventures were enacted by miniature trains with anthropomorphic faces. There's no real animation or puppetry to the shows (or the movie) -- the engine's mouths don't move in sync with the actors' voices, and their expressions only change in cutaways.
The show was imported to the States under the title Shining Time Station. Ringo Starr, who narrated the British shows, played the diminutive Mr. Conductor; he was later replaced in the role by George Carlin, who in turn was replaced by, of all people, Alec Baldwin. Baldwin also plays Mr. C in Thomas and the Magic Railroad, which Allcroft wrote and directed. Allcroft can't, at least, be accused of condescending to her audience. She layers on so many plot twists and cuts around between so many characters and whips through so much portentous prophecy and rapid exposition that it's as if you're seeing The Little Engine That Could rewritten by Tolstoi. Put simply, Allcroft got overambitious, and the resulting movie is grindingly dull and muddled.
The magical Mr. Conductor works at the train station in the gentrified town of Shining Time. He gets trapped at the other end of the rail line, however, in Thomas's homeland, and Thomas, along with a little girl from the big city (Mara Wilson, who's getting a bit long in the tooth for this stuff), tries to help him find magical "gold dust" so that he can get his mojo back. Among the more smirk-inducing of the cryptic clues they have to go on is "Stoke the magic in the mountain, and the lady will smile."
Somehow this all relates to Fonda, who looks elegantly yuppie-stylish as the morose "Grandpa Burnett Stone," and whose responsibility it is to revive a magical steam engine called Lady, thereby preventing the takeover of the rail lines by diesel engines. It can hardly be insignificant that the sweet steam engines speak with lilting Brit accents, while the nasty diesel engines all sound American.
The whole thing seems awfully cozy with British class presumptions, actually. The finest status that a working-class engine can aspire to, in the movie's idiom, is to be "really useful." That phrase is repeated so often that it begins to sound eerily Orwellian, and also disingenuous: Considering the restless racket the kids in the theater were putting up, I doubt that this could be judged a Really Useful Children's Movie.