The beloved PBS series about the little blue train and his friends moves to the big screen with a story that will please its many fans, though they might find it a little hard to follow. Even adults may scratch their heads at the plot, which has to do with the train and human characters finding a lost train hidden in Muffle Mountain, finding some magic gold dust somewhere on the magic island of Sodor and defeating the mean bully deisel train, all while finding courage, magic, and a sense of responsibility within themselves.
Series regulars Didi Cohn and Russell Means appear briefly, but they’ve brought in some real Hollywood talent for the main characters to add star quality. Alec Baldwin plays the conductor, Peter Fonda the sad man who is trying to get Lady, the missing train, back in shape, and Mara Wilson (“Matilda”) as his grand-daughter. All three give great, sincere performances that help make the story seem real. And the producers wisely stay away from high-tech special effects so that the trains look just as they do in television.
Thomas and the Conductor are faced with a lot of challenges. The big deisel train with the wicked looking pinchers is a bully who wants to take over. The only one who can stop him is a train called Lady, who has been missing for many years. The conductor is running out of the special gold dust that enables him to go back and forth between Shining Time Station and the Island of Sodor. He goes to his surfboard-loving cousin Junior for help, and Junior uses up the last of the dust. Meanwhile, Lily and Patch try to help Lily’s grandfather, who has a secret that just might help.
Parents should know that even though the movie is rated G, there is some violence and peril, though no one is hurt. It is also mildly troubling that the female characters are so passive — when Lily gets off at the wrong stop, she just sits there and waits for someone to help her, and Lady, the only female train and the only train that is supposed to be powerful enough to defeat the diesel, never confronts the bully. She just runs away from him.
The movie does give families a lot of important issues to discuss. First is the requirement of “the three R’s” — the conductor and the trains must all be responsible, reliable, and “really useful.” Families should talk about what that means and see if all members of the family can give examples of how each tries to accomplish those goals. Thomas says that “little engines can do big things,” and children should talk about what they can do to help others. Talk with them about what makes some people want to act like bullies. Make sure they notice how the foolish deisel says that he does not make mistakes, insisting that “I meant to do that!” whenever something goes wrong. And point out how Thomas encourages his friends, reminding Percy that he is really brave, and how important that kind of help can be. Lady says that “helping each other brings the magic to life in all of us.”
Some children may be concerned when Lily gets on the wrong train and does not know how to find her grandfather when she gets off. Families should talk about what a child should do if separated from parents, how to find someone who can help and how important it is to be able to tell the police your name, address, and telephone number. Some children may be upset by the references to Lily’s grandmother who died, and parents may get some questions about that.