DIRECTOR: Morgan Matthews

CAST: Jenny Agutter, Tom Courtenay, Sheridan Smith, Jessica Baglow, John Bradley, KJ Aikens, Beau Gadsdon, Eden Hamilton, Austin Haynes, Zac Cudby

RUNNING TIME: 98 mins

CERTIFICATE: PG

BASICALLY…: In 1944, a group of evacuated children go on a perilous adventure in the Yorkshire countryside…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

The 1970 adaptation of E. Nesbit’s acclaimed children’s novel The Railway Children is fondly remembered as a family classic, which even fifty years since its debut is still enchanting young audiences and their nostalgic parents. While I personally never had any real childhood nostalgia for the film (in fact, I only saw it for the first time fairly recently as an adult), I was still at least aware of its existence as a kid, because parts of it are so iconic – from the Edwardian steam engines to that tear-jerking final scene with Jenny Agutter – that it was impossible to ignore its cultural impact.

It is specifically this adaptation of the oft-adapted novel that is being followed up on with this new theatrical sequel, and there’s a fair bit to admire about The Railway Children Return, including how (unlike a lot of other legacy sequels that have popped up in recent years) it doesn’t simply just do the first movie again, while also attempting to homage the original’s timeless appeal under its own pretences.

The sequel takes place in 1944, when a group of young evacuees – including siblings Lily (Beau Gadsdon), Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted (Zac Cudby) – are put on a train from bombed-out Salford to the quaint Yorkshire town of Oakworth, where OG railway child Bobbie Waterbury (Agutter, reprising her iconic role) has made a home for herself with her adult daughter, local headmistress Annie (Sheridan Smith), and grandson Thomas (Austin Haynes). The siblings are taken in by Bobbie and her family, and together with Thomas they make the most out of their new life in the countryside – but things get a bit more serious when they encounter Abe (KJ Aikens), a young American GI among the many stationed in Oakworth, who’s now hiding in one of the train compartments having fled from his post, for reasons that become heart-breakingly obvious when the movies gets into some of its heavier themes. Nonetheless, the children set out to help their new friend, with some assistance from some of the locals including Bobbie, railway conductor Richard (John Bradley, following in the footsteps of Bernard Cribbins before him), and friendly government link Uncle Walter (Tom Courtenay).

Almost right away, The Railway Children Return sets itself very far apart from director Lionel Jeffries’ predecessor; gone is the more episodic, borderline inconsequential structure that stayed faithful to Nesbit’s original prose, and in its place is a more traditional three-act narrative that accompanies most family films today. There’s not a whole lot wrong with that, since that original film does suffer from that kind of archaic narrative that shifts quickly from one event to another (which, in some aspects, adds to its timeless charm), but it’s interesting nonetheless to point out how different this new film is in comparison to the older one, not just in how it’s structured but also how there’s a lot more weight added to the story this time round. Unlike the original, there are genuine stakes with these characters; the main youngsters (all played with plenty of wide-eyed natural charisma) and some of their adult caretakers constantly have to deal with the realities of war happening around them, while their new friend Abe is experiencing some very harsh racial discrimination from within his own unit (never mind the Germans: the US Military Police are the real Nazi Gestapo figures here). There are legitimate dangers that these characters face, no matter how old or young, which does make things surprisingly intense for a family-orientated movie of this nature, let alone one that’s designed to be a sequel to a wholesome classic like The Railway Children.

Since there is a much more immediate threat this time round, not to mention a greater socio-political context, the film threatens to end up as significantly less heart-warming and innocent as the original (particularly when one of the first major gags in the movie is pure bathroom humour). However, The Railway Children Return just about manages to get away with its wildly more dramatic tone, because it manages to establish its own identity which, while certainly in keeping with the (mostly) harmless general feel for the original, doesn’t just repeat the same events from that movie. Director Morgan Matthews, along with co-writers Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers (who also provided the initial treatment for the sequel), pays strong respect to the much-admired predecessor by emulating its universal and often joyful appeal, but not to a point where it is simply repeating entire scenes or moments from that movie, or even relying that heavily on audiences’ nostalgia for the original. This is best summed up by the minor participation of Jenny Agutter, for while it’s nice to see the actress reprise this role, she very much stays to the side for a lot of this story, with the writers only bringing her in when it’s absolutely necessary, or for the occasional direct nod to the original film. The focus is very much on these newer young characters, with Agutter’s Bobbie just there as a gentle reminder of the past without drawing too much attention to it; so many legacy sequels needlessly put some of their classic characters in the forefront without knowing exactly what to do with them, but this movie does almost the opposite by acknowledging their existence, but also keeping things focused on what is new rather than what once was.

It’s the kind of belated family sequel that’s more in line with something like Mary Poppins Returns, which absolutely rides on audiences’ nostalgia for the original, but does enough of its own thing with greater dramatic weight and a more modern sensibility that it barely feels like a mere re-tread. The same can be said about The Railway Children Return, which is bound to delight new generations of children as much as the classic original did (and still does), without feeling like an unnecessary add-on several years after the fact. Time will tell if it truly lasts as long as that film has, but for now it’s a pleasant and cheery return to British heritage cinema that families can easily enjoy without betraying what they previously enjoyed about the youthful adventures in Oakworth.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Railway Children Return wisely sidesteps being a mere re-tread of the classic 1970 original, adding a greater dramatic urgency and a stronger socio-political context which occasionally threatens its wholesome and innocent tone, but remains a charming family follow-up that should delight most viewers, regardless of their nostalgia for the original.

The Railway Children Return will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 15th July 2022 – click here to find a screening near you!

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