Media Essays: The History of Thomas the Tank Engine Part 3
Updated: Jul 22, 2022
Our story so far: Thomas the Tank Engine started off as a series of books that became popular, then Britt Allcroft turned it into a TV series that became REALLY popular. So where else can the franchise go from here? That's where we enter Thomas's next step in his adventure from children's icon to franchise juggernaut as we talk about that faithful time when Thomas and Friends puffed their way to the big screen. It is time to finally talk about Thomas and the Magic Railroad...
Thomas's Big Movie Debut
Plans for the movie started as far back as 1994 with Britt developing potential ideas for a movie based on both Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends and Shining Time Station as both shows were at their prime and still very popular amongst audiences. Yeah, despite many of us labelling this as a "Thomas the Tank Engine movie", it's really pretty much a crossover between those shows. Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe made crossover movies popular, we had this thing. Go figure. XD
Anyways, it was in mid-to-late 1995 when Britt's big project had its beginnings when she was approached by Barry London, who at the time was the vice-chairman of Paramount Pictures. He came to her with an idea for a Thomas movie and come February 1996, Britt signed a contract to write the script for the film, which had the working title of Thomas and the Magic Railroad. The reason for Barry's approaching of Britt for the film is that it's believed it came from his three-year-old-daughter, who was enthralled by Thomas the Tank Engine. Isn't it nice when people decide to make movies for their kids like so? A press release stated that filming was to take place at Shepperton Studios in the UK and the US with a release date set for 1997. Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuut...that didn't happen as Barry left the company and as a result, Paramount shelved the project. Britt was left to seek other sources of funding by herself. She tried going to PolyGram, but while discussions were held, they didn't go anywhere because the company was in the middle of a corporate restructuring and sale so it really was a inconvenient time to try asking them for help.
However, things would finally go Britt's way in the summer of 1998, which just happened to be during the production of the show's fifth season, when Britt saw an Isle of Man Film Commission Advert. They were offering tax incentives to companies wanting to film on the island. Britt took some time to visit the Isle of Man and felt the location was PERFECT for her. What was also handy was that Barry London had become Chairman of the newly founded Destination Films, which is owned by Sony Pictures, and he renewed his interest in the project so Destination Films became the main financial backer and studio for the film. OK, mission accomplished! The film can start being made! But Britt and her crew would need a cast first. Who did they pick? Probably not the kind of people you'd expect to see in a Thomas movie...
The main stars of the movie are Alec Baldwin, Mara Wilson and Peter Fonda, who play the characters of Mr. Conductor, Lily Stone and Burnett Stone respectively. Other actors included Russell Means who was cast as Billy Two-Feathers (from Shining Time), Didi Conn who reprised who role as Stacy Jones (also from Shining Time) and Michael E. Rodgers who plays Mr. Conductor's cousin, Mr. C. Junior.
According to David Jacobs, the former vice president of the Britt Allcroft Company, Alec Baldwin's presence in this movie was mostly down to his daughter, Ireland Baldwin, being a fan of the Thomas series. Funny enough, Alec himself would actually go onto narrate the US dub of the series during Seasons 5 & 6. For those Americans, I imagine it must've felt like Mr. Conductor was narrating to them. As for Mara Wilson, in an interview with PBS News Hour in 2016, she would cite this movie as one of her favourite films she worked on alongside Matilda.
As for the Thomas cast, they went through a few different casting choices before settling on the cast we ended up with. For Thomas himself, he was going to be played by John Bellis, but in the end he was played by Canadian actor Edward "Eddie" Glen. It was a really shame too as Britt felt he was PERFECT for the role of Thomas but test audiences felt John's Liverpudlian accent made him "sound too old". Since when is age determined by accent all of a sudden? John himself was gutted he didn't get the part but nonetheless wished the filmmakers well and still had a credited role in the movie as transportation co-ordinator. Interestingly enough, Ewan McGregor and Bob Hoskins had also expressed interest in the role. While I think Ewan might've been OK in the role, I cannot for the life of me imagine Thomas with the voice of Bob Hoskins and I doubt anyone else can too for that matter so no blooming wonder that didn't happen! XD
What was also interesting was that this could've been Michael Angelis's chance to move from the Thomas series to the Thomas movie as he was originally cast to voice both Percy and James. However, his voices were considered to sound "too old" and thus he was replaced by actress Susan Roman for James and Linda Ballantyne for Percy. Who knows why they did that though because all that did was make the two sound like women in the movie. I know some voice actresses can do a good job sounding like pre-teen boys but not in this case. As for the villain of the movie, Diesel 10, he was going to be voiced by Keith Scott but he was replaced by Neil Crone, who also voices Gordon in the movie. Keith believes it was because his portrayal was considered "too scary" for the kids and that's why he was replaced. Originally, Neil gave the character a Russian accent but he later redid his lines in a New Jersey accent as test audiences felt the Russian accent might be considered offensive.
But the most interesting casting choice to note here is that Lady was played by Britt Allcroft herself, making this movie her only acting role. Britt also provided the narrations that were meant for Lily before they were dropped in the final cut.
For the filming of the movie, principal photography began on August the 2nd 1999 and wrapped up on October the 15th 1999. The movie was filmed at the Strasburg Railroad in Strasburg Pennsylvania and also in Toronto, Ontario in Canada and of course, on the Isle of Man. The Castletown Railway Station was used as part of Shining Time Station and the goods shed at Port St. Mary Railway Station became Burnett Stone's workshop. For the Indian Valley locomotive that Billy drives in the movie, they repainted a Norfolk & Western 4-8-0 475 and used that locomotive for the film. For the scenes on the Island of Sodor, they still used models to portray The Railway Series characters like in the show. The models were moved around on the rails using live action remote control and the model sequences were filed in Toronto instead of Shepperton Studios like the original series, although several of the show's key staff were flown over to participate so they still got to work on the models at least. The titular Magic Railway was created using models, CGI and water-coloured matte paintings. To have the actors and the models together, they would digitally compose the actors next to the models using chroma key. Out of all the engines in the movie, Lady was the ONLY one who ever got a life-sized model constructed. I imagine that caused her to feel like a giant amongst a land of midgets as a result. XD
Sadly, the model still exists today but is considerably...um...tatty, shall we say? The prop was listed for sale on LetGo on the 24th of November 2017 and as you can see, it's in a pretty sorry state of disrepair. The money, which amounted to $2000 had been gathered to purchase it and it was soon moved to a storage facility awaiting repair in Florida to be restored. But as of now, there are currently no plans to restore the prop so I think Lady truly has run on her last rails my friends.
Production Troubles Arise...
As for the making of the movie...well...it didn't go well. How so? Oh nothing too significant really. Only the tiny easily overlooked fact that SEVERAL BIG CHANGES HAD TO BE MADE THAT ALTERED THE FILM DRASTICALLY!!! So yeah, nothing too bad, am I right?!
No, in all seriousness, a LOT had to be changed during the making of this film and a lot of these changes weren't easy to fix. The biggest of these changes is the removal of one of the film's most important characters who is part of a good chunk of the film's plot and world-building. Yes ladies and gentlemen, let's finally talk about P.T. Boomer. Played by the late Doug Lennox, P.T. Boomer was meant to be the main antagonist of the movie alongside Diesel 10. He would've had a history with Burnett Stone, and not a pleasant one too as P.T. was not only frequently antagonistic to Burnett due to jealousy over the relationship he and his wife Tasha had together, but it was HIM that was responsible for Lady's wrecked state in the movie, hence Burnett's depressed state that we see him in throughout. He is also responsible for some of the things in the movie like it was him that caused Thomas to fall down Muffle Mountain when he ended up on the clifftop, it was him that caused Mutt the Dog to feel uneasy and bring Lily to Shining Time rather than let her go to Muffle Mountain and during the chase scene, Burnett's line of "No you won't, because the magic you refuse to believe in will get the better of you!" was aimed at P.T. rather than Diesel 10. P.T. would then join Diesel 10 in the chase scene by riding on top of him and while Diesel would try to catch Thomas and lady, P.T. would just be on top yelling insults at Burnett.
So why did they throw out one of the film's most important characters? Because the test audiences felt he was "too scary" for the children. Good grief do some children have over-sensitive parents...so with that in mind, the film had to drop P.T. Boomer and all of his scenes save for one shot of him driving away on a motorcycle and a brief moment where you can still see him on top of Diesel 10 just before he goes into a tunnel and the character's goal to find Lady was rewritten for Diesel 10 so that the was the sole antagonistic force. This change necessitated a lot of rewrites and as a result, let the theatrical cut as we know it just feeling incomplete and missing parts of the characters as a result. Honestly, I would've just re-shot P.T.'s scenes again and tried to tone him down so he was less scary to the kids but what're you gonna do? I didn't make the movie after all. If there's anyone who HATED this change more than anyone else, it was Peter Fonda as dropping P.T. out left his character high and dry with barely anything to work with now the most important aspect of his character's story was just gone. I also imagine Doug Lennox hated this too considering he wasted all his time working on the movie only not to be in it in the end but I can only guess on that so don't accuse me of putting words in his mouth, OK? Until 2020, his scenes were never officially available aside from the leaks online but when the movie was released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Shout! Factory, the scenes were made available at last.
Oh and according to Britt Allcroft's Facebook page, P.T. Boomer's name stands for...Passing...Through...
You and me both, buddy!
Other changes made during the movie included making the narrator Mr. Conductor instead of a grown-up Lily and dropping an entire potential subplot involving George the Steamroller. Yeah, HE was meant to be in the movie at first, believe it or not! He would've played an antagonistic role in which he would've been one of Diesel 10's lackeys, agreeing to help the villainous diesel destroy all the buffers on Sodor so he could find the ones that led to the Magic Railroad and Diesel 10 would reward him with being allowed to destroy a turntable at Tidmouth Sheds to turn it into a roller rink. However, George would later turn on Diesel 10 and as can be seen in these old storyboards, would've helped to trap his henchmen, Splatter and Dodge, between some buffers and a boulder. Would've been interesting if they kept this subplot honestly but I wouldn't say dropping it mattered that much.
The movie was finally released in the UK and Ireland on July the 14th 2000 and in the US and Canada it was released on July the 26th 2000. But before release, the film premiered at the Odeon Leicester Square with a steam locomotive, a no. 47298 to be exact, painted to resemble Thomas brought to the cinema on a low loader on July the 9th 2000. Talk about a big way to open up a movie! But the coverage was low because many journalists were more interesting in covering the launch of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire book for which a special train called "Hogwarts Express" would run from July the 8th to July the 11th. Let's face it guys, was Thomas the Tank Engine EVER going to get more publicity than freaking Harry Potter of all things? To think this wouldn't be the last time Harry Potter stole a popular children's franchise's thunder too...
Anyway, the film was released at last aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand...well...how can I put this? Um...it was a pretty sad sight. I'll let this picture sum it up for you:
Cinders and ashes indeed, my friends.
The movie was a colossal failure at the box office by grossing only $19.7 million at the Box Office against a $19 million budget. I imagine a big reason why it bombed so hard might've been down to the fact it was released in the same month as big new movies like Scary Movie, X-Men and even Pokémon the Movie 2000 which came out a few days after this movie did and considering you're in competition with a flippin' X-MEN movie AND a POKÉMON movie all in the same month, it's no wonder this poor film couldn't hope to be a success! Let's put it this way: X-Men was the big new superhero movie coming out at the time and many people growing up in the 90's were fond of the cartoon show that aired back then and 2000 was still very much the year of the Pokémon craze that had been started by the late 90's and Pokémon the Movie 2000 was not only a new Pokémon movie, but was also a sequel to Pokémon: The First Movie, it's no wonder that people were more interested in watching those than a movie about Thomas the Tank Engine!
As for the critics...well...they hated it. That's all I need to say about it.
The film wasn't too well-regarded by Thomas fans either due to Thomas himself barely being in the movie and essentially being reduced to a plot-device while too much of the movie was about the Shining Time aspect and the whole concept of magic just didn't feel right for a Thomas movie. However, the film has gone on to be viewed better in later years, mostly by fans who grew up watching the movie and Magic Railroad has gone on to at least gain a cult following. On YouTube, you can even find fan-recreations of the movie (such as this one: Thomas and the magic railroad *EXTENDED CUT* - YouTube) that basically act as a "director's cut" with most of the missing footage and plot-points restored.
And while the movie itself flopped hard, it didn't fail completely as the merchandise made for the movie (consisting of numerous toys, books and the like) were hot sellers and it was the success of the film's merchandise that led to a certain move that we'll talk about later. Also, it can't be denied that the movie had a big impact on the franchise in spite of its failures. Heck, characters like Lady, Diesel 10 and even Splatter and Dodge would appear again in other Thomas movies that came out later in life! But we'll talk about that later too.
A re-release of the film on DVD and Blu-ray as a 20th anniversary edition from Shout! Factory and under license by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment was released on September 29, 2020. The 20th anniversary edition includes a two-part documentary of the film, new interviews with the cast and crew, and a rough cut version of the film including extended and deleted scenes as well as the storyline of P.T. Boomer was released on VHS and DVD by Icon Home entertainment on October the 19th 2000 in the UK and by Columbia TriStar Home Video on October the 31st 200 inthe US. The film was then rereleased on DVD and Blu-Ray on September the 29th 2020 as a 20th anniversary edition from Shout! Factory under license by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. This 20th anniversary release includes a two-part documentary on the making of the film, interviews with the cast and crew and a rought cut version of the film including extended scenes, deleted scenes and the cut storyline of P.T. Boomer.
So you all are probably asking what the hell happened after THAT catastrophic failure? Well to put it bluntly, Britt really got a damn good thrashing for what happened with Magic Railroad and how badly it failed in its cinematic run. Because of the film's titanic flopping, Britt was forced out of the series and her company, which was renamed to Gullane Entertainment following her departure, was sold off. So who bought the company? None other than HiT entertainment, the very company that owned and distributed various popular children's shows at the timesuch as Bob the Builder, Pingu and Barney & Friends. As mentioned earlier, the success of the film's merchandise was one of the things that led to HiT buying the franchise. The company would go onto own the franchise up until 2012 when they would later sell it off to Mattel. Imagine screwing up so badly that you get kicked out of YOUR OWN COMPANY THAT YOU FOUNDED AND NAMED AFTER YOURSELF?! I don't blame you if you feel sorry for Britt Allcroft at this point!
It also isn't helped that even to this day, some fans blame HER for what's to come later in Thomas's history, like it's somehow her fault that Magic Railroad bombed and the franchise had to be sold off to HiT Entertainment. Because yeah, it's totally Britt's fault the movie failed when circumstances beyond her control forced her to change things that hurt the movie and that somebody thought releasing it in the same month as X-Men and Pokémon the Movie 2000 somehow WOULDN'T backfire on them in anyway. Nah, it's all Britt's fault, am I right?
You and me both, Thomas.
So what became of the franchise next after it was sold to HiT Entertainment? Well, that's for next time so tune in next week as we cover the HiT and Mattel eras of Thomas and Friends...
Scources: Wikipedia, The Thomas Wiki, IMDB and Twitter