How Thomas and the Magic Railroad came to be...!
Long before the July 2000 theatrical release of Thomas and the Magic Railroad, Britt Allcroft had plans for a Thomas the Tank Engine feature film as far back as 1994 prior to the launch of the fourth television series. Some time mid to late 1995, Barry London, at that time Vice-Chairman of Paramount Pictures approached Britt with a pitch for a Thomas film. London’s interest in the franchise was credited to his then 3 year-old daughter who was enthralled by Thomas and his friends. With the backing of a premiere studio, discussions began to bring Britt’s dream to reality.
The journey began in February 1996 with Britt signing a contract with Paramount to write the script for a feature film with the working title: Thomas and the Magic Railroad. Filming, a press release announced, was originally to take place exclusively between Shepperton Studios in London, and the United States. As the film was one of Barry London's pet projects, all plans for it were shelved when he parted company with Paramount later that year.
Despite this setback, Britt Allcroft was by now committed to seeing this project through. Britt sought alternate film funding sources and investors. For a short time there were exploratory discussions with PolyGram, which did not go any further as the company was in the middle of a major corporate restructuring and sale.
Undaunted, Britt considered the option of producing Thomas and the Magic Railroad as a wholly independent feature. During the summer of 1998, Britt saw a travel magazine advert from the Isle of Man Film Commission, who were offering very attractive tax incentives to companies wanting to film there. A few weeks later, Britt paid visit to the Isle of Man to personally assess how the locale fit in her vision for the film. The Island's beautiful scenery and its friendly inhabitants quickly made a convert out of Britt. After a period of back and forth discussions with the Film Commission, the prospect of her film being realized began to at last look promising.
As an aside, there is an unconfirmed rumour that unnamed executives associated with the project wanted to change the film’s title to Thomas and the Rainbow Railway, but the original title won out. If this is true, we can additionally speculate that the proposed title change may have happened during this period whilst the film was back under the UK spere of influence.
As it turns out, Fate intervened once again which would see the Magic Railroad project coming round full circle! In early 1999, Barry London become Chairman and CEO of the newly founded Destination Films, resuming his interest and putting the project back on track as a major financial backer and studio for the film.
The final film funding breakdown was provided as follows to the Independent on 19 July, 2000 by William Harris, then Managing Director with the Britt Allcroft Company: Of the £13 million (19 million US) film budget, half was being funded by Destination Films, £2.1 million by the Britt Allcroft Company, with the remainder coming from the Isle of Man Film Commisssion, Japanese Investors and tax credits offered by other filming locations (Pennsylvania and Toronto).
In February that same year, an official press release by Destination Films stated that the movie would be released during the summer of 2000. With a 19 million dollar budget, Britt was earnestly building up the Production team whilst firming up the script’s storyline before the scheduled summer filming. Phil Fehrle signed on as Co-Producer and the team took advantage of further tax incentives offered by the Province of Ontario, Canada to attract film productions. The condition was that a percentage of the film had to be filmed and produced in Ontario with a Canadian crew. This may have influenced the decision to set up and film the model shoot in Toronto rather than at London's Shepperton Studios, the traditional home of the Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends TV Series.
Britt’s ambition for the film was to merge Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends and the acclaimed American TV series Shining Time Station – both her creations into one universe. After all, the latter program introduced Thomas to North-American audiences.
Grease star Didi Conn as Station Master Stacy Jones was the only member of the original Shining Time television cast to be featured in the film, while Alec Baldwin took on the role of Mr Conductor, the part traditionally associated with storytellers of the Shining Time series, like Ringo Starr and George Carlin before him. Upon accepting the role, Baldwin told the news media that he was attracted by the Lewis Caroll (Alice in Wonderland) feel that the film's storyline offered.
One notable film casting departure from the Shining Time Station series was the role of Engineer Billy Two-Feathers, where the part went to actor Russell Means in lieu of series regular Tom Jackson. Also missing from the film’s cast was Shining Time’s lovable rascal, Schemer played by actor Brian O’Connor.
New to us however were the other human characters, namely Lily, played by Mara Wilson, a child star made famous alongside Robin Williams in 1993's Mrs. Doubtfire. Mara was called up to play Lily, the grand-daughter of Burnett Stone, the depressed caretaker of the lost engine, played by Easy Rider's Peter Fonda. After the movie, Mara became involved in the stage production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, performed at the Ector Theater in Odessa, Texas, before becoming a freshman at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University in the fall of 2005. Mara was nominated two awards for her portrayal of Lily - the Young Star Award for "Best Young Actress/Performance in a Motion Picture Comedy" and the Young Artist Award for "Best Performance in a Feature Film - Leading Young Actress".
A supporting same-aged character opposite to Lily was Patch, played by Cody McMains, who had extensive experience with American television shows. Cody returned to television performances after the film, and is currently the proud owner and manager of Cacao's, a popular Santa Monica coffee house. Paired to Alec Baldwin's Mr. Conductor was "Jr.", played by Scottish-born actor Michael E. Rodgers, who had starred earlier that year in Mel Gibson's "Patriot". Michael played Mr. C's laid-back beach boy cousin whose performance added charm and comedic moments to the film.
The engines of Sodor were also due some new arrivals for the movie, firstly in the shape of the three new villains - the sinister Diesel 10 and his bungling sidekicks Splatter and Dodge. There was also the introduction of the first female steam engine, Lady, a special locomotive who generated the magic that kept both Shining Time and Sodor universes together thorough the Magic Railroad. The role of voicing Lady was taken up by Britt Allcroft herself.
Little known and cast into obscurity was a role Canadian actor Doug Lennox was originally recruited for - that of PT Boomer, the human villain of the movie and nemesis of Burnett Stone. It has been confirmed that all of Doug Lennox's scenes were filmed, but later cut from the film after an unfavourable test-audience screening in a Santa Monica mall in March, 2000. The resulting edits forced Britt and the Producers to repiece the movie's storyline into the version of the film we are all familiar with today.
On 9th July 2000, Thomas and the Magic Railroad made it's unofficial debut at a UK charity premiere of movie at London's Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square, just prior to the 14th July official UK theatrical release. In America, special charity event pre-screenings took place in Los Angeles on 22nd July, and on the 23rd July in Toronto. The film's official launch date for North American audiences was on 26th July.
Brochure cover from the July 9, 2000 UK Charity Premiere of TATMR
A Really Useful Earner - Sonia Purnell (The Independent) 2000-07-19