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“Thomas and the Magic Railroad”: Britt Allcroft Interview

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., July 17, 2000 — It was a little idea that could.

From a set of 1940s children’s books by the Rev. Wilbert Awdry to a successful 1980s British television series, little Thomas the Tank Engine has continued spreading his steam to children everywhere.

Now the train comes to the big screen for the first time in a new adventure, “Thomas and the Magic Railroad,” released by Destination Films. The film is written, directed and produced by the show’s creator, Britt Allcroft, who makes her feature film debut.

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“I think it’s a combination of keeping all that is familiar to children that they love, and at the same time making the most of all the opportunities of creating the story for the cinema,” says Allcroft of adapting the story to the big screen. “I think the daunting thing was truly the first day of the shoot and realizing that everyone was looking at me. And nothing could happen without me, and all these millions of dollars were there, and all these incredibly talented people were working on this film. But the buck stops with me.”

In the film, we are introduced to the magical island of Sodor, which resides separately from Shining Time Station on the Isle of Man. Thomas and his engine friends are working under the jolly Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin), who uses magic dust to travel to the human world. But he’s losing his sparkle (literally), and the secret lies somewhere with a magic railroad and lost engine. A vacationing 12-year-old (Mara Wilson) visiting her grandfather (Peter Fonda) also factors into the story.

Wilson, who debuted in film with “Mrs. Doubtfire” when she was 6 years old, remembers the Thomas the Tank Engine shows, but it was the excitement of working with Allcroft that cemented her casting.

“We got the script and I kind of looked through it and I met with the director and she went into detail about how she was planning on doing this,” Wilson says. “And it just sounded great, so I accepted it like that.”

Casting Baldwin as the cheerful conductor was an unusual choice, but Allcroft reveals that Baldwin had previously starred in the TV episodes.

“He has a great sense of humor, and he knows a lot about kids,” Allcroft says. “It was a surprise to some people that he was gonna play Mr. Conductor, but I’ve always loved taking risks and putting actors in roles in which they’re playing against type.”

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With her cast put together, Allcroft set about making a film that wouldn’t be overshadowed by its live-mixed-with-animation visual effects.

“I think of this film as akin to reading a storybook to the child, where they will see it like it happens on the film,” Allcroft says. “For me as a filmmaker when I talk about movie painting, that’s what I’m saying, that sort of transition. Now how we get there, that is where visual effects come into play.

But I just want children to buy into the fact that one minute there is no gold dust and the next one they see it there. So there are visual effects, but it’s not in fact a ‘visual-effects movie.'”

She hopes children all over the world will also see it that way.

“I think the appeal of Thomas is universal, and children embrace Thomas as their own basically all over the world,” Allcroft says. “I think part of the appeal of these stories is they contain emotions and feelings and playfulness that is universal. We live in a very fast-forward world, a very noisy world, with lot of high technology, which is great in many ways.

“But human beings are still the same, and little children are still the same. And they need fun, and they need love and adventure and security, and they need to be given a sense of hope and self-esteem.

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“And I think it’s through storytelling is what fairy tales has always been about … to help interpret the world for children. And that’s what I hope we do in this environment.”

“Thomas the Magic Railroad” steams into theaters July 26.

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