Few moments in history seem to be covered as extensively on screen as World War II. It feels like nearly every aspect of this wide-ranging, devastating event has earned its own movie. In the case of Morgan Matthews' Railway Children, the WWII practice of parents sending their children out of cities and into the country in the face of terrifying air raids takes center stage, as well as the racist treatment of Black American soldiers. Railway Children, itself a sequel to the 1970 film of the same name (this new effort is referred to as The Railway Children Return in the U.K.), frequently alludes to the war but keeps the focus on the central group of children and their surprising adventures. Railway Children makes an admirable attempt at shedding light on a lesser known aspect of WWII, but ultimately doesn't possess enough depth.
In 1944, siblings Lily (Beau Gadsdon), Pattie (Eden Hamilton), and Ted (Zac Cudby) are sent to live in the country as the bombings in cities are getting worse. They're taken in by local schoolteacher Annie (Sheridan Smith) and her mother Bobbie (a returning Jenny Agutter), and quickly become fast friends with Annie's son Thomas (Austin Haynes). While exploring the nearby train tracks, the children stumble upon a fugitive American soldier, Abe (KJ Aikens), who, despite his fervent insistence that he's 18 years old, is in way over his head. Led by the headstrong Lily, the children must band together to ensure Abe makes it home safely.
There's little question that a movie named Railway Children is going to take a relatively sanitized approach to World War II. To Matthews' credit, though, the movie doesn't water down the conflict for younger audiences. Matthews, along with screenwriters Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers, understand that kids know loss, and Railway Children acknowledges how war can take away loved ones without a second thought. It doesn't dwell on this for long, instead focusing on the bonds of friendship between the characters. That Railway Children maintains a rosy glow for much of its runtime isn't a bad thing considering its target audience, but that optimism sometimes feels at odds with the story Brocklehurst and Rodgers are trying to tell.
Railway Children struggles the most when it comes to Abe's circumstances. There is nothing subtle or careful in how the film portrays the racism Abe faces. From blunt scenes of Black soldiers being beaten to an impassioned (yet familiar) monologue given by Abe himself, Railway Children tackles this thorny topic through the exact avenues one would expect. That it wants to tell this story is admirable, but it lacks the grace needed to make an impact. As a result, the emotional climax of the film rings a bit hollow. There are some audience members who will no doubt cheer when Railway Children reaches its grand moment, but there's a decidedly juvenile feel to the proceedings.
Much of Railway Children rests on the titular characters' shoulders; after all, this is about their journeys. The young cast is sweet while still possessing the adorably awkward mannerisms that only kids can have. As the de facto lead, Gadsdon has come a long way since playing a young Jyn Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. She fits the part of Lily well, making the young girl someone to root for even as she tackles obstacles no child should. Aikens gets his own moments to shine as well, and while he doesn't seem quite comfortable in the role, he brings real heart to Abe's more emotional scenes. The adults, led by Agutter, all manage to provide warmth and stability to the overall story. Everything is tied together with Jeff Tessler's solid production design, which brings the trains and homes of 1940s England to life with charming realism.
Railway Children doesn't necessarily justify its existence as another WWII movie, but there's enough poignancy here to win over some audiences. If it handles its harder topics awkwardly, it's because of a desire to keep things lighthearted. For a movie geared towards families, this isn't a bad thing. Ultimately, Railway Children struggles a bit in balancing its tone and grand ambitions. However, for those looking for a sweet story about the power of friendship and childlike willfulness, this movie just might win them over.
Railway Children released in theaters Friday, September 23. The film is 90 minutes long and rated PG for thematic material, some violence and language.