Friday, 11 April 2014

The Film That Ruined My Childhood: Thomas and the Magic Railroad

As a kid, I recall I had a lot of shows I used to enjoy that made an impact on my life. I never really bought into the standard fare like TransformersPower Rangers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One show in particular that had quite the impact was the classic British series Thomas the Tank Engine.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the series, it used to be something really special. Episodes were usually about five minutes long, and they centered on a number of locomotives (the title refers to Thomas, but he wasn't always the central focus) living on the fictional British island of Sodor. The stories usually centered around said locomotives taking jobs for "The Fat Controller" (A.K.A. Sir Topham Hat) and going about their business, possibly running into trouble and/or learning an important lesson along the way.

The original series did have a very strong charm to it, especially the first few seasons in which the crew seemed to really take the time to learn how railways work (not surprising, given it was originally based on a series of children's books by a railway enthusiast). Structurally, the episodes were presented in a storybook-like format with a narrator providing all the voices. Quite a few famous people have narrated the show, including Ringo Starr of the Beatles and comedian George Carlin in the American version (yes, he narrated a kids' show). Visually, it was very simplistic, but in a good way, with everything being represented by well-crafted models.

That is of course, the original series. The show is still running today, but it's lost just about every trace of the dignity it once had. The models are gone and everything is replaced with terrible CGI, the stories are idiotic and full of holes at best, and it just has none of the charm it once did. What could be responsible for this sudden change? Perhaps it has something to do with the one attempt to make this wonderful show into a feature-length movie: Thomas and the Magic Railroad.

Where to begin with this film? It actually has a surprisingly decent cast, all of whom really waste their talent here: Alec Baldwin, Peter Fonda, Mara Wilson, and Didi Conn (Frenchy from Grease). Alec Baldwin plays Mr. Conductor, a magical conductor who can teleport through space and time and between alternate dimensions with the power of a whistle powered by "gold dust" while Mara Wilson plays a young girl going to see her grandfather who is trying to repair a broken engine- WAIT WHAT?!

Okay, I guess that brings us to a major problem with this movie, which is that the movie doesn't really seem to understand the show (though this may have been due to the studio's interference). Mr. Conductor was part of the cast of a spinoff show titled Shining Time Station

The short version is that in order to broadcast episodes in America they had to fit them neatly into thirty minute timeslots, so they created a sitcom centered around a bunch of kids who hang out in a train station and their interactions with the people who worked there. Mr. Conductor was a train conductor who for some reason was really tiny and had a tendency to teleport around the station. Usually, about twice an episode, Mr. Conductor would be talking to the kids and find some way to connect with something that happened on Sodor. He'd then blow his whistle and we'd fade into an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Alec Baldwin does seem like a strange choice to play the role, since in the show the character was played first by Ringo Starr and later by George Carlin, and there isn't even an effort to make Baldwin look similar. However, a bigger problem is in how Mr. Conductor treats Sodor. In the series, Sodor was a fictional British island. They talked about it a lot in Shining Time Station, but since that show was set in America, it was usually just treated as a distant land (which make sense, given it would be on the other side of the world). In Thomas and the Magic Railroad, however, Sodor literally becomes a separate dimension that can only be accessed through a magic railroad. I am not making this up.

The star of The Hunt for Red October.

So of course, a large part of the movie is less so about Thomas and his friends, and more about Mr. Conductor wandering around trying to figure out how to get more gold dust for his magic whistle while also doing silly and unnecessary slapstick moments. We also get a few supporting characters in Peter Fonda, who is desperately trying to fix the engine that is meant to travel the "magic railroad" and Mara Wilson as his grandaughter, and of course there's also Michael E. Rogers as Mr. Conductor's cousin Junior.

The world of Sodor itself is also quite a bit different from the show, given its only inhabitants are Thomas, his immediate friends, and the villains, with no sign of any of the other thousand trains from the show or any of the people. Sir Topham Hat is referred to but never seen (though granted this could just because finding an actor to play a role usually played by a wooden figure is a somewhat awkward task). The trains are therefore able to move freely on their own even though the original series made it clear they needed drivers to control their movement (though it was never consistent on exactly what degree). 

That also brings us to the villains of the film. As was common in the series, the conflict comes from a diesel engine wanting to dominate the railroad. The original series could get pretty dark on this front, including at least one instance of two diesels attempting to murder a steam engine (and almost succeeding). Of course, in the movie, the diesel is one of a ridiculously over-the-top design with massive claw (why any sane person would actually put that on I have no idea). He also has two henchmen who more closely resemble the diesels in the show, but they have little characterization and abruptly decide to ditch the villain for some reason towards the end.

This was definitely not a dignified fate for Thomas the Tank Engine. Now the show has lost all the charm it once had, and yet it still keeps going. I suspect that this movie is to blame for that change.

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