We live in an era of legacy sequels. The Railway Children Return (or Railway Children as it’s being marketed in some areas) is among the more expected. Most modern audiences might not be familiar with the 1970 British film simply titled The Railway Children. This successor doesn’t require viewers to see the original. While some actors reprise their roles, such as Jenny Agutter as Bobbie Waterbury, the cast is almost entirely different. This is to be expected, as the OG railroad children haven’t been children for almost 50 years. Given the time gap, the film can feel more like a reboot or standalone film than a sequel. Whatever you want to call it, Railway Children is compelling enough to potentially generate newfound interest in the first film.
Where the original took place towards the dawn of the new century, this film jumps ahead to World War II. Once again, the story centers on three siblings, Beau Gadsdon’s Lily, Eden Hamilton’s Pattie, and Zac Cudby’s Ted. With the bombs falling, their mother sends them to West Yorkshire. Most of the locals aren’t willing to take a trio in, but the grown-up Bobbie Waterbury can’t say no to their mischievous yet darling faces. Chances are she sees herself and her siblings in them. Bobbie now has a daughter named Annie (Sheridan Smith) and a grandson Thomas (Austin Haynes). While those who grew up with the 1970 film will likely get nostalgic seeing Agutter return, the film naturally belongs to the children.
Railway Children isn’t as episodic as its predecessor with the main plot centering on a young African-American soldier named Abe. The children discover the injured Abe, who claims to be on a secret mission. Lily eventually deduces that Abe isn’t telling the whole truth. When Abe comes clean, the children are torn on what to do. Where Lily pushes to keep Abe a secret, Thomas is torn on the right thing to do.
Railway Children is at its best when the film treats the audience and characters like adults. The film explores several serious topics, from grief, to racism, to abandonment. When the characters sit down and talk about these issues, it’s an effective drama for older kids and their parents. Now and then, though, the film can start to channel after school special vibes. While the film doesn’t pander to viewers, there are romanticized moments that don’t always fit with the more mature conversations. The climax, in particular, is about as contrived as something out of a Disney Channel Original Movie. Granted, this movie is for kids too, but one can’t help but wish the filmmakers went all in on the adult tone.
Nevertheless, the film reaches its final destination with enough charm and nuance to pass by. The kid actors are up to the task, although Pattie and Ted can feel underdeveloped. Director Morgan Matthews crafts a lovely-looking picture that captures the whimsy of childhood and the grit of war. Railway Children is reminiscent of the kind of movie you’d watch in school on a lazy Friday. That might not sound like the most ringing endorsement, but movie day was always the best day of school. Even if you check it on the weekend, families with kids of a certain age should be absorbed.