It's sad in the extreme to see a behind-the-scenes cast of thousands, well hundreds, combining in an attempt to turn visual effects and animation into pure, innocent magic, and failing miserably. It's equally sad to see "Thomas the Tank's" creator, the late Reverend W Awdry, excised from the credits so that writer-producer-director Britt Allcroft, who can certainly be credited with bringing "Thomas" to television, hogs centre-screen.
On the other hand, it's good that the lateral-thinking, steam-loving clergyman is not openly associated with this misconceived mess, which puffs and wheezes its way from first frame to last. Its laborious structure makes the little tank engines look like supercharged rockets by comparison. Completely lacking the intriguing characterisation, wonder and zip of a good animated film, "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" spells out its simple plot ad nauseam and is so stretched that even averagely bright kids will be offended by the repetition.
The plot, creaky as it is, involves the linking of two worlds - that of the 'real life' community of Shining Time and that of Thomas and his friends - by Mr Conductor (Alec Baldwin), who bounces freely between the two with the help of his magic gold-dust. In his attempts to squash the nasty diesel engine who is devoutly anti-steam, Mr Conductor is joined by his cousin (Michael E Rodgers), a jolly young lady (Mara Wilson) and her grandfather (Peter Fonda).
Given that the two worlds are equally improbable, why is Shining Time peopled by actual humans, the other by animated trains? Doesn't Britt Allcroft realise that the more literal world of humans - which she also tries to render as charmingly dotty - is almost bound to be less magical than the more surreal one of small, eccentric engines? Because Thomas and chums inhabit what is clearly a cosy corner of England, how come they are invaded by American accents? Why was Peter Fonda allowed to interpret Grandpa Stone in such a sonorous, over-earnest manner that he sounds completely silly? And why was such a clumsy effort brought to our screens in the first place? All you can say in the film's favour is that the engines, trains and railway paraphernalia look right. But just like people, a film has to be judged on more than looks alone. I just hope that Reverend W Awdry, deservedly basking in the glow of his own books, is still resting contentedly at the back of his heavenly engine-shed.