Looking back at Thomas And The Magic Railroad

We try and make some sense of the utterly bizarre Thomas The Tank Engine movie. What's Peter Fonda doing in a cave with a lady train again?

Thomas and the Magic Railroad is an odd film. Released in the year 2000, it wasn’t a weird direct to video thing, but a full blown feature, with real actors and everything. My only recollection of the movie – before revisiting it here – was of seeing it back when it was released, and thinking it was a bit crap. But let’s have a look, shall we children?

But what’s this: starring Alec Baldwin! Wait, what? And Thomas the Tank Engine, as himself. Again, what? But before we can get comfortable in Thomas’ traditional home of Sodor, we’re off to a difference place called Shining Time. Yay! Where?

This film is going to be worse than I remembered, isn’t it?

British viewers may not be familiar with our friends in Shining Time Station, but there is some history to it. When Thomas the Tank Engine made his way across the pond for its US TV debut, it was decided a format change was needed, and so a station was added as a framing device. Thus, US Thomas devotees will know Ringo Starr for not only providing the narration (and his work in, er, The Beatles), but also appearing in person as Mr Conductor, who would tell stories of Thomas and friends to a group of children.

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It’s actually quite a nice programme, albeit very American, and it ran for most of the 90s. Also, and I’m not making this up, George Carlin replaced Ringo Starr in later seasons. While we were stuck with the guy who played Ringo Starr, America got Rufus. No wonder the kids were paying attention to him. Listen to this dude Mr Conductor, he knows what he’s talking about.

However, Thomas And The Magic Railroad was made at a time when Alec Baldwin was providing the US narration of the show (after the end of Shining Time Station), so we get him as Mr Conductor. It’s better than it sounds, if just for it being so damn weird. But in this film, Alec Baldwin doesn’t acutally narrate. He just plays Mr Conductor, which means he actually has his own plot, and the engines all speak for themselves. Or squeak. Because rather than having to hire British actors for the film, they instead bought a bunch of orphans and had them speak like Niles from Frasier. It gets annoying really fast.

Ignoring the Shining Time narrative (which we’ll get back to), the Sodor plot is that Diesel is being a bit of a dick, and Thomas doesn’t like him. Now, for a five minute episode this is probably about as complex a story you can get, but this is a 90 minute movie. So, we literally have 85 minutes of filler. Therefore, we get Diesel being a massive dick, and trying to murder everyone at every opportunity. I’m not kidding.

Back at Shining Time, the filler for the Thomas story is giving us a huge dose of exposition, while trying to pretend it’s not. So, we get a wise mysterious Indian with a map of a lost railroad, an annoying kid called Patch who’s trying to find it, and Burnett, the weird old dude who lives in a cave. Burnett is played by a comatose Peter Fonda. Either the guy really hated his agent for this film, or he wandered onto set by mistake thinking there would be a bike involved, but either way, it’s impossible to watch him without depression creeping in.

Except this is a plot point. Burnett is actually supposed to be really miserable, as when Patch finds an old picture Burnett drew, no one can imagine him being happy. Naturally, Patch quickly goes to visit the apparently suicidal Peter Fonda in his weird cave, and finds that he lives with a train… called Lady. Just let that sink in for a moment. I’m thinking he might not look quite so down if he had a real lady down there.

He’s apparently keeping her safe from an evil diesel, who made her go too fast. He calls this a mistake he made, and wants to bring her back to life. None of this makes any sense, even with the whole talking train thing.

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Still, a bit of story happens: Diesel hires some goons then hits himself in the face. Well, that’s enough plot, so back to the filler.

Here we meet Mr Conductor, a tiny Alec Baldwin dressed as an ice cream man. He’s small because… but he fits in on Sodor because… Look, everything there is small. Wait, what? I’m not sure I really get this (and neither does the film, because later in the film they ignore it), but Mr Conductor is really small in our world, but normal size on Sodor. So Thomas and friends are actually models? Is Sodor just some giant model in Will Ferrell’s basement?

More exposition. Something about gold dust and a lost engine and a magic railroad. This film is moving too fast, I can’t keep up with it. I mean, just how can these mysteries fit together? I am almost certain that it has nothing to do with Lady, and the weird wise Indian with a map to Sodor.

Anyway, Alec Baldwin travels by gold dust, apparently, which he calls “sparkle”. It’s basically a whistle and the original Star Trek transporter effect, and also a convenient way of keeping him trapped in one place should the plot demand it later. So, Alec Baldwin finds Thomas and gets in him, and I still think it’s weird that Thomas is supposed to be the size of a guinea pig.

Just in case we’d forgotten the weird dude in the cave, we get a shot of Burnett moping again, and looking so longingly at the painting of her that I think the only reason he’s single is because he actually loves his engine. Typical man, am I right?

Fellow Den Of Geek writer Jenny Morrill at this point informs me that she finds this film perfectly normal.

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Cut to the actual real world. New York or something. Some girl doesn’t want to go to visit the weird man in the cave who fucks his trains, and to be honest I’m not sure we can stand any more filler. She’s played by Matilda. Her name is Lily, or something, but I keep forgetting it because this film for three year olds can’t hold my attention. Anyway, after quite understandably moaning about having to spend her school holidays in a cave, she gets on the wrong train after being tricked by a dog, which in any other film would be an unbelievably stupid thing to happen.

Jenny at this point informs me that she too once got on the wrong train after being tricked by a dog.

Back to Sodor. James and Thomas are hurling insults, before Gordon comes in and points out what a little shit Thomas is. Then, for no reason, they talk about a magic engine that can defeat Diesel. I am sure this has nothing to do with Lady. No sir.

Then, Harold covers everyone in diesel’s sneezing power after flying into shot for no reason whatsoever. It’s almost like they had a five minute skit, then unbelievably felt the need to cut it to fit the film, so we get the result of a prank with no explanation whatsoever. I’m getting worried that I’m not following the children’s film.

Alec Baldwin is squatting in the Fat Controller’s office, trying on his clothes, when he goes mental at a poster and falls over the desk. He then talks to the Fat Controller as if it’s his first day on the job (and for everyone in Britain, it might as well be) and goes to bed in the engine shed. Then, because he’s clearly insane, he starts having a conversation with a bat and ball before starting a conversation with his cocoa. Apparently, there’s an art to it. Not too strong, not too sweet. I don’t know what he’s on about, I just make my own out of Bisto and lots of coffee whitener.

Jenny says that she doesn’t want a cup of cocoa.

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Diesel comes to the engine shed and does his usual routine of trying to kill everyone by trying to knock the shed down and crush them with the rubble. Mr Conductor heroically tries to magic himself away, but it fails, so he threatens Diesel with sugar (no, seriously). This inexplicably works, and Diesel sods off. The fact that Mr Conductor’s sparkle doesn’t work is apparently bad, as he won’t be able to “help” the engines (not that he ever did before), and this will apparently destroy Shining Time, or at least make it untidy. After muttering something incomprehensible about gold dust and railroads straight through the fourth wall, the scene abruptly ends.

Jenny says she is really enjoying this film, and I’m starting to think Peter Fonda has the right idea shacking up with a knackered steam engine. Then again, he’s also starting to have delusions that there’s a ghost in his hedge, so maybe his bachelor lifestyle isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Mr Conductor is scratching James, which James seems to be really getting into. Then he sods off to the windmill. Of course, the windmill! Wait, what windmill? You mean the one from the opening credits of the series? Anyway, apparently it mills gold or something. I don’t know what’s happening here.

Then the engines are just wasting time, even to the point that Thomas won’t race Sodor’s replacement bus service, aka Bertie. He’s off to solve mysteries. No, that’s actually what he says.

Anyway, Alec Baldwin accidentally walks into a rabbit’s lair, and starts eating all his food while shouting random words. This provokes him to phone his cousin ‘Junior’ using a flower. Junior is on a beach, you see. He asks Junior to go get his “emergency supply”, which is in no way suggestive. Also, Junior has a shell phone. Shell phone. Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

I don’t get it. I mean, not just the joke, I don’t get what is happening now. Film, explain yourself! You stopped making sense about 30 minutes ago.

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Just so that we can start having some of these disparate plot threads finally intertwine, Matilda arrives in Shining Time. After arguing with her dog, she meets Junior, who is searching for Mr Conductor’s secret stash. The sight of a one foot tall idiot doesn’t really throw her, neither does his little disappearing trick to Sodor. In fact, the only thing she seems interested in is the gold he left behind. 

Mr Conductor is moping about (what is it with the men in this film?), as without his sparkle gold dust whistle thing he suddenly stops being able to do all the useful things he does, such as talking to himself and running away. To combat this, he decides to lie down in a ditch and hide.

Matilda reveals Burnett called her grandma Lady. Wait, this isn’t going where I joked it was going, is it? Well, whatever, Burnett just acts suicidal again as he drives this girl to his haunted house in the woods. That night, they hear the ghost train again. Maybe he just lives next to Alton Towers?

Thomas and Percy decide to put their heads together, and surmise that the lost engine must have a lost railway. Really? You idiots, no wonder Gordon tried to murder you all those times. Even more stupidly, they said this in front of Diesel, who then goes to his evil lair to scheme about this non-revelation. Fortunately, Toby the tram decides to do some eavesdropping of his own, and hears Diesel deciding to kill Lady, again. Diesel tries to kill Toby, but just ends up destroying his shed, because that’s all he knows how to do.

Musical interlude. Even the filler has filler. But, this montage leads to the discovery of something completely unexpected… a magic railroad. Wait, not unexpected, the other thing: obvious. Seriously, this is supposed to be the mystery, despite being the title of the film. This film is from the producers of Citizen Kane: It Was His Sled and The Sixth Sense: [Spoiler redacted].

Mr Conductor is aimlessly wandering down the side of the railway when Diesel comes and tries to murder him, again. He picks him up in his claws and threatens to drop him off a bridge, but Mr Conductor finds a tool in his kit and cuts his hydraulics. I’d say the next bit doesn’t make sense but… well, let’s just say he attributed his miraculous not falling to his death to the children in the audience. Then, Diesel gets covered in coal in an unrelated skit.

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Matilda and Patch are filling time in the movie dicking about in a tree. Burnett walks over, presumably trying to find a cliff to throw himself off, then sods off when they suggest going to Shining Time. But they don’t go, they just ride a horse instead. They ride over the lines on the map from before. Gee, I wonder if they’ll find a magic railroad. Actually they don’t, although Matilda does get to have a go on Junior’s sparkle, and then she finds the magic railroad. Using magic, she becomes the same size as Junior.

Just in case we’d forgotten, we get yet another scene of Peter Fonda having another depressing conversation with his engine. Get a room. Wait, they’ve got a room. Okay, get a better room that isn’t a weird cave. The next time we see him, he’s actually staring over the edge of a cliff, ready to jump, when Patch comes to tell him he can’t find Matilda. At this wonderful news, Burnett decides not to commit suicide and he sort of just wanders off.

When Thomas meets Junior he pulls over, they argue about an incident involving party poppers, and then they go to find Mr Conductor. Not that anyone cares where he is, as for most of the film he’s been lying in a ditch. When they find him, Mr Conductor chews out Junior for no reason, but then they both restate the plot.

A quick flower phone call later to the Fat Controller to provide distraction, and Junior has a ride on the windmill. The only purpose of this scene seems to be to get Junior into bother by getting blown onto Diesel, so we can have another bit of peril. This bit (set in a genuinely creepy fiery industrial estate) sees Junior finally running out of gold dust, which nearly reduces Mr Conductor to tears. You see, the withdrawal symptoms of gold dust can be fatal.

At night, they all find that Diesel and his goons have found the buffers that lead to the magic railroad. For the fortieth time, they re-explain the entire plot. Something to do with a Lady in a mountain and a magic engine and… it’s all just too complicated. Literally no one could unravel this mystery. Definitely can’t have anything to do with Peter Fonda’s girlfriend.

Mr Conductor then has what passes for a good idea. Why doesn’t Thomas go through the magic railroad? Actually, there’s no reason he shouldn’t. So he does. And there he realises that this magic engine they’re looking for might need some coal, so takes some with him. Unfortunately for Thomas, the magic railroad comes out on a cliff, and he falls off it (after dropping Lily off), and into another weird portal thing. This is never explained.

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Lily meets Peter Fonda again, who at this point is nearly catatonic, and points out the bleeding obvious, that Lady is the missing engine, and all she needs to run is some sodding coal. Peter Fonda you idiot. You tried sweet talking it, you tried cuddling it, but you didn’t try actually putting some fuel in it. No wonder you’re so miserable, you’ve probably forgotten to eat.

Back in Shining Time, Lady, who is less convincing than Alton Towers’ Runaway Mine Train, is finally steaming, and they take her on the magic railroad. This makes gold dust something London Midland should seriously look into. And Lady comes to life! I think the implication is that Lady is actually Peter Fonda’s wife. There’s a really weird bit where they go through an oil painting, like a deleted scene from What Dreams May Come. Burnett shouts “green for glory!” for no reason as he rides Lady all the way to Sodor. Again, the size difference is never mentioned.

Alec Baldwin shits on everyone’s parade when he points out that even though they have Lady, without gold dust they will all die. Definitely detecting a heroin metaphor here.

‘Plot’ threads continue to be unravelled, as Diesel returns. He chases them a bit, then they go over the bridge from before, which starts to crumble, and Diesel falls into a barge full of excrement. Hooray!

Back with the conductor, they figure out the gold dust that lady made was gold dust, although you have to mix it with water and throw it in the air, because magic. After stalling for time for about five minutes, Matilda finally does, and it rains gold. Peter Fonda tries to act pleased, but it mostly seems like he’s bored. He must miss his cave.

Finally, they all sod off. Junior gets Mr Conductor’s job, Mr Conductor goes back to Shining Time, and all the adults take their cut of the gold dust. Thomas just goes home. The End.

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Okay, so this film is monumentally stupid, but it is meant for kids, and you know what? It’s actually alright. I mean, it’s not great. It’s not even good. But it is quite old fashioned and that’s a nice thing. It’s comforting to think that something like this could actually exist, not least of which because you actually feel like the people making it (except Peter Fonda, who really does look like he wants to kill himself) were really behind it.

Alec Baldwin genuinely throws himself into it, even the really weird bits that make no sense, and he really is a joy to watch. Junior, played by Michael Rogers, could have been really annoying, but he’s actually quite fun. You could imagine him being a successful kids TV presenter. Anyway, the point is, despite all the things that made no sense, I really, really couldn’t bring myself to hate it. It’s just too… odd.

But, before I end this on a positive note, I have to point out the film ends with a Eurobeat cover of The Locomotion, and another song that I don’t know the name of. Sing along if you know the words!

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