BOX OFFICE RECEPTION
A retrospective analysis of the movie's reception at the Box Office.
With guarded optimism, Thomas and the Magic Railroad officially made its debut in 314 theatres in the United Kindom and Ireland on the 14 July, 2000. The movie's reception by British film critics could at best be described as cool, in a nation where the Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends TV show and the Rev. W. Awdry's Railway Series are regarded as almost sacrosanct British institutions.
The use of the term Railroad in the film's title, along with the unfamiliarity of the UK audience to the Shining Time Station mythos led some to imply that this was a crass attempt by the producers to fully Americanise Thomas - an allegation that Britt steadfastedly denied and felt wounded by. Britt maintained that the familiar elements of trust, gentleness and laughter of the Sodor characters were preserved in the film. The inclusion of Shining Time Station into the storyline served to make it appealing to all ages as a family film for the duration of its 85 minute run time - something that would be arguably more difficult to achieve with only the TV character models.
The overall box-office success of the movie, however would depend on how well it would perform two weeks later in the United States where it would be screened in 2106 theatres across the nation on the 26th July, 2000.
In America, the movie's debut drew mixed and sometimes opposite reviews. Some film critics loved and appreciated the movie (an example of a positive review is reproduced on this page), while others, including acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert did not find any redeeming qualities in either the storyline, acting or animation. The critics opined that the engine character mouths should have been animated and they expected more special effects from a film with a multi-million dollar budget.
In her own defense, Britt maintained the status quo from TV to the movie with regards the fixed facial expressions where the animated eyes drew attention and enhanced the character's emotional state. Britt expanded on why she felt it was important to keep the simple storybook quality of Sodor to reporter Frazier Moore in an Associated Press Article on 28 July, 2000:
I think there's a danger in assuming that everything has got to be very high-tech, otherwise you've let the audience down. We wanted the special effects to support the story, instead of the story supporting the special effects.
The debate and discussion about animating the faces raises an interesting question: Had they gone ahead with this plan, would this been expected to be carried forward into Series 6?
Britt also touched upon the different plot elements within the movie that converged into a single theme of the need to help one another out in times of need. The engines supporting one another in their dealings with the bully Diesel-10 will certainly appeal to younger children, while those who are older will be able to relate to Lily's attempts to help her Grandfather rediscover happiness by restoring the "magic" into Lady. Mr. Conductor and cousin Jr. serve to bridge the two worlds together with their own crisis with a gold dust shortage that threatens their continued existence.
The Film's Bottom Line
From the Box-Office return figures provided by Box Office Mojo , Thomas and the Magic Railroad made $19,748,009 (USD) in worldwide receipts, of which $15,933,506 was raised in the USA, with the remainder $3,814,503 contributed by Foreign distribution. Although lambasted by some as a "box office flop" within the context of Hollywood, a much more modest conclusion would be that with a promoted production budget of 19 million, the film broke even.
The REAL Source for Gold Dust
Britt Allcroft has often been described by insiders as a person with astute business sense. In the lead-up to the movie's theatrical release, Britt's company was forging and expanding mechandizing deals in America. Recognizing that film-making is a risky business, Thomas and the Magic Railroad would serve as a vehicle to get to the real source of the Gold Dust. Then managing director of the Britt Allcroft Company, William Harris describes this best in an interview with the Independent (17 July, 2000) :
We want to push the revenue curve substantially higher, with huge potential particularly in the US rather than here (UK). Thomas's penetration in the US is only about half that in the UK in terms of royalty revenues per capita.
Recall that Thomas' popularity in America had taken off in meteoric fashion in 1989 since his debut on the acclained Public Television Children's program Shining Time Station. By January 1993, the recognizable character was leading the Children's Parade across the Memorial Bridge into Washington for President Bill Clinton's Inauguration. Realizing the power behind the brand and with the movie's release across the continental United States reaching a greater mainstream audience, Thomas was about to demonstrate how really useful this little blue tank engine is!
On March 21, 2001 William Harris reported to the Scotsman and the Evening News (Edinburgh, Scotland) that thanks to the movie, gross profits for Gullane up to December 31, 2000 rose 78% from previous figures, equating to about pounds 13.3 million. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles indulged the wee ones by including Thomas toys and videos, especially for the Holiday season. In the end, the merchandizing blitz and subsequent revenues more than made up for any perceived lost ground from the movie's box office performance.
1993 inaugural parade - look who's in the lead!
In retrospect and considering what is now known about the version of Thomas and the Magic Railroad that was originally scripted, filmed and radically edited after the March 2000 test audience screening at a Santa Monica Mall, tributes should be given to the Britt and her team for being able to re-piece the movie's story-line under such a tight timeline before opening day.
Whether the original cut of the film, much longer we're told at 110 minutes would have fared any better under the scrutiny of film critcs is anybody's guess. The same for whether any of the required changes to the film could have been preempted early on during the production. In the final analysis, we're left with the final version of the film that we are all familiar with. Whether you liked Thomas and the Magic Railroad is a question of personal preference. For ourselves, appreciation for the film has grown after corresponding and meeting many of the fine people who worked as a team behind-the-scenes to bring the "magic" to life. In reality, it's the audience who judges a film's success or failure, and with that said, here's something that sums it all up that was found in the editorial section of the Syracruse Herald American for Sunday, September 17, 2000:
I would like to thank producer Britt Allcroft for her recent movie, "Thomas and the Magic Railroad." It was wonderful to take our son to a movie that was violence-free and hot high-tech.
The critics think it is awful and give it one star. I say five out of five. It seems like an old-fashioned movie with a plot and the theme of good vs. bad and a dash of hope and magic.
I am looking forward to more Thomas movies.
- Kathy Wiethuechter, Moravia, New York
A Sampling of Magic Railroad Movie Reviews
Below are a sampling of film reviews written by newspaper columnists from the United Kingdom and America which have been chosen to represent a balance of the varied critics' opinions of the movie.
The text of the following movie review by Graham Young is reproduced below with the kind permission of David Brookes, Editor of the Birmingham Evening Mail (UK) to whom we extend our thanks.
Film Review: Thomas and the Magic Railroad
By Graham Young, Birmingham Evening Mail, July 14, 2000
AFTER the original Rev Awdry books and the cute TV series, both very British, you may find yourself experiencing massive culture shock on seeing the first big screen adventures of THOMAS AND THE MAGIC RAILROAD (U), writes Russell Rhodes.
There is, horror, a decidedly American flavour. There's things here you've never seen in a Thomas the Tank Engine tale before.
Like the talking tank engine interacting with real people for the first time. Like the magic gold sparkle. And the human world railroad town of Shining Time with its Indian Valley. That's because they, like Didi Conn who plays the human station mistress, come from American TV series, Shining Time Station.
A crafty ploy to try to appeal to youngsters on both sides of the ocean?
Well, the Americans may go for it, but it's hard to see any but the most indiscernible of British children falling for this frankly charmless and confusing story in which Thomas and human girl Mara Wilson have to help prevent the evil diesel from finding the legendary Lost Engine and destroying the magic railroad between the Island of Sodor and the human world.
Surprisingly, Alec Baldwin is one of the best things here, entering into a Sesame Street spirit of pre-schooler fun to play the diminutive Mr Conductor who has lost the magic sparkle that helps him travel between worlds.
Peter Fonda, who plays a sullen widower who knows the secret of Lady, the lost engine, also seems to have lost his sparkle. And I'm not talking special effects.
An unhappy cocktail of the quaint and the crass, it's as if someone stuck two similar but very different TV series together and called it a movie.
In fact, that's exactly what they did. Not a transport of delight.
We kindly thank Associate Editor Mike Spain of the Albany Times Union for permission to reproduce Amy Biancolli's review of the movie. The original piece can be viewed on the Albany Times Union Archives (link provided in article below).
THOMAS CHUGS ALONG AT PERFECT PACE FOR KIDS
By Amy Biancolli, Albany Times Union, July 26, 2000
Are you 8 years old or younger? Are you fond of trains? Do you harbor a keen interest in the serpentine career path of Alec Baldwin? Then have we got a film for you.
'"Thomas and the Magic Railroad," which opens today amid very little hoopla -- certainly none of the hoopla attending ''Pokemon 2000'' -- has to be the gentlest, most unassuming and most quietly charming children's film to be released this summer. Grown-ups won't like it as much as kids, older kids won't like it as much as younger kids, and some kids, it's safe to say, won't like it at all. Too many people smiling.
But this harmless, brightly made movie is bound to delight small children with its sweet mix of magic and minor (very minor) derring-do from one of the heroes of public television: Thomas the Tank Engine, the small, blue, "really useful'' locomotive who began life in Wilbert Vere Awdry's whimsical children's books. The Thomas in Britt Alcott's film is recognizable to anyone who's read the books or ingested the PBS series, although a few new elements are tossed in to snap things up. Preschool purists won't object.
Blending live action and modest animation, "Thomas and the Magic Railroad'' stars a winningly peppy Alec Baldwin as Mr. Conductor, the minute, magical railroad man who commutes via ``sparkle'' between Shining Time Station, where big people reside, and the Isle of Sodor, where little folk co-habit with talking trains. Sodor has its malcontents -- there's a long-running rivalry between blue engines and red ones, large engines and small ones -- but by and large, they all bustle about the train yard in cozy harmony.
Then Bad Things start to happen. Mr. Conductor begins to lose his sparkle. A Big Bully Diesel starts to say threatening things about a lost engine and the annihilation of Mr. Conductor's universe. The lost engine, a dormant beauty named Lady, holds the key to both Mr. C's waning sparkle and the future of Sodor, but Lady's been hiding out in Shining Time (Muffle Mountain, to be exact) and hasn't been up and running for years.
Lady is looked after by a sad wan man named Burnett Stone (Peter Fonda, remarkably well cast), who used to run Lady along the Magic Railroad but has since retreated into near-hermitic existence. Fortunately for everyone, his granddaughter (Mara Wilson) comes to visit, instantly befriending both a kind-hearted boy on a horse (Cody McMains) and a lilliputian surfer-cousin of Mr. C's, the loudly-shirted Junior (Michael Rodgers).
The plot chugs along amiably and at just the right speed for little ones -- not too breakneck, not too slow. Unlike most kids' movies these days, this one makes no effort (barring a couple of jokes about "shell phones'') to woo adults; everything is aimed directly at their offspring. Most of the dialogue is of the "I'm feeling a little blue, which isn't so hot when you're red'' variety,
Finally, For Your Amusement...
The Nostalgia Critic is notorious on the internet for taking movies and TV shows and 'reviewing' them in his own wacky, satirical style. Here, he finally gets around to reviewing Thomas & The Magic Railroad after a multitude of fans requested that he give his critique on the movie. There has been some criticism that he did not research the TV Series itself, but really, his conclusions on the Movie itself are worth watching.
Parental Advisory: Please be forewarned that the reviewer uses language at times not suitable for younger children and those who may be offended!
Sparkle, Sparkle, Sparkle!