Sunday, 22 September 2013

Film and DVD Review: King of the Railway

Well, it's been a week since the US release of the special, so as promised here's my review of it. A warning now that anything past this point is loaded with spoilers, so if you haven't seen it yet and don't want to find out what happens, close your Blogger tab now. With that out of the way, I'll get rid of the last piece of housekeeping before I begin:

Thanks to TTTE Wikia for the image
2013: a very big year for Thomas and Friends. Sharon Miller was removed as head writer and replaced with Andrew Brenner, Nitrogen Studios were replaced as animators by Arc Productions and a railway consultant was hired in the form of Sam Wilkinson. But would this, as well as a new production team, continue where Blue Mountain Mystery left off and raise the Thomas and Friends special bar even further? Or was Blue Mountain Mystery a one hit wonder?

Front Cover
Thanks to TTTE Wikia for the image
To be honest, I don't see this as a DVD front cover. I see it more as a work of art. It is absolutely stunning! The Nitrogen Studios special covers felt rather cluttered with characters and they all shared the same basic design. This one however is just extremely simplistic and beautiful. Just Thomas and Stephen (the main characters) in the foreground, Ulfstead Castle in the background and that spectacular sunset sky. They all come together to make the best special cover since Calling All Engines!.

Like the three previous specials, the DVD comes in a card sleeve which has a 3D feel to it. Also present on the sleeve is a little advert for a free child's ticket to Thomas Land (which has become an annual inclusion with the specials since 2010).

There's really not much more I can say about it; it's simply perfect.
Rating: 10/10

Back Cover
Thanks to TTTE Wikia for the image
The back cover is a thing of beauty too! I really like the shield design used to advertise the new characters and the tag line at the top is just brilliant; it's much more worthy of it than that Royal Baby (ALL HUMANS HAVE BABIES, GET OVER IT!) Anyway..!

Despite the addition of Millie and Sir Robert Norramby (who looks fantastic with that pose, by the way!), it still doesn't feel cluttered. It's just a fantastic image that shows off the special's main plot points extremely well. Those little banners splitting the main part of the cover and the DVD details is great too.

It's another piece of artistic brilliance, except maybe that red background where the DVD details are. Compared to the front cover and the rest of the back, it seems rather plain and uninspired.
Rating: 9.5/10


The special begins at Brendam, with Thomas and Percy shunting rather too roughly. Cranky warns them against it, but they just say they're being careful. As the last truck rolls towards the others, a crate bounces off onto the tracks and a suit of armour (which Percy thinks is a robot) jumps out with it. As Cranky and Percy wonder if it's been damaged, workers clear up the mess and Thomas wonders who it belongs to. It was a nice little opening that felt a lot more natural than Blue Mountain Mystery's.

For their first intro, Arc's animating team for the specials (I'll explain a bit more about that later) gave Sodor an old style look, as if it was a map. Thomas then travels along the stylised track to Ulfstead Castle. It suited the special's theme really well, but it's rather disappointing that they didn't style the characters in the same way. It makes them stand out, but not necessarily in a good way.

Main Feature
What follows the intro is probably one of my favourite starts to a special ever. Instead of starting in the usual way, we're taken back in time to the days where there were no railway networks. Instead, it was just a regular island with ordinary people that were ruled by King Godred; a well loved, protective ruler. However, his crown would be stolen and hidden by thieves, and it would never be seen for hundreds of years... It was a stunning start, from the way Godred's story was told to the way it was animated. After 29 years, Sodor finally has some sort of historical background, and the island feels more real because of it. Thank you Andrew Brenner for doing your research before you wrote this special!

Next, we're told about Ulfstead Castle's ruins. As we are, the animation style reverts to normal and we're transported back to the present, with Hiro steaming down from the ruins and passing Rosie. Next, we're taken to Vicarstown Bridge, which is another superb addition to the series. Since posting this review, I've been reliably told that the bridge IS accurate with the "real" Sodor's infrastructure, which is fantastic! More kudos to Andrew Brenner (and Arc Productions) there.

After this, we're taken to the wash down, where Thomas, Annie and Clarabel have just arrived at, only to see four other engines (Percy, James, Gordon and Emily). While they all speculate why they're there, the Fat Controller arrives in Winston (who says nothing) to announce that Sir Robert Norramby is returning home after travelling the world. I really like this. Rather than treat him like a new character that's... well, new, treating him like an old character, despite him being a new character to the audience, feels more natural. It's almost telling kids that things do happen when Sodor's not on the air.

Next, we're treated to a little montage of Spencer on his journey with the Earl while everyone gets ready for the party. It's been a long time since we had a good montage. It's fantastic to just hear engine sounds, commotion on platforms and music from the Hartshornes (I don't really count musical interludes eg. the montage seen in Blue Mountain Mystery with Working Together as the backing track). It just makes things feel more natural (has anyone noticed the main positive of the film yet? :P).

Spencer and the Earl soon arrive to a large fanfare. However the Earl, who didn't seem to get the memo, believes it's a party from someone else and leaves for the estate, leaving everyone befuddled and the engines guessing who Millie (the engine that the Earl meets at the estate) is. It's a scene of pure comedy gold, which is extremely rare for a pre-school show. From the Earl's reaction to the party to the slow stoppage of the brass band's fanfare, it's sure to leave viewers chuckling (if not kids, the adults probably will).

Soon after, Thomas collects a shipment (yes, that word was used!) for the Earl. At the castle, the Earl is (I'm guessing, judging by the dialogue we hear before Thomas pulls up) talking through his plans for the castle. When Thomas arrives, he summons Millie using a trumpet style instrument (yeah, I'm not sure what it is :P). While they load her trucks with the crates, she explains to Thomas that she was stowed away in her shed while the Earl was away, which explained why no one had seen her. I rather like this explanation; it seems a lot more plausible than Luke's last year, in my opinion. As Millie tries to leave, the Earl tells her they're still loading - implying that the train's brakes are on. It would have made the situation a tad more realistic had that been mentioned (let's face it, this is aimed at kids. They may not know what's holding Millie back).

Thomas then sees the men unloading the crate with the armour in (the one that accidentally fell from the truck in the prologue) and worries if it's been damaged, but the Earl reassures him that it's very strong. He then boards Millie's coach, asking the men to load it next to him so it can be his guard (another funny moment). As he hugs the armour, he wishes he had Godred's crown to complete his plan. As Millie leaves, Thomas begins to wonder about the crown too. It's another good scene that not only resolves something from earlier in the special (the armour incident) but sets the rest of the major plot up quite nicely.

A few days later (I'm glad it's a FEW days later, not the next day. It feels more natural), Spencer returns to Sodor as the Earl has borrowed him from the Duke and Duchess of Boxford. Gordon says that the others have more important jobs (pulling expresses and hauling heavy goods). Spencer retaliates, saying that only the finest engines are chosen to be private engines. After a little argument about who's the fastest, Percy suggests they have a race. They both agree to one first thing in the morning. It's a nice scene that has some excellent facial expressions from Gordon and Spencer. I also love how the silver engine is referred to as "streamlined". It's a nice little nod to older fans who may also be railway enthusiasts.

Next morning, as Percy shunts his coaches (hooray!), Gordon wonders where Spencer is. Soon after, Spencer passes through and the race begins. But as Gordon catches up, Spencer rolls over some points and heads to the Earl's estate to start work. I don't really think the races add that much to the plot, but they're very fun to watch. I'd rather see Gordon and Spencer race than Thomas and Spencer or Thomas and Diesel, both of which were completely unrealistic.

Later, Percy sees Spencer (who he mistakes for Thomas somehow) and asks what he's doing, to which Spencer replies that he's dropped the Earl, who's on important business with the dock manager, off. As Percy leaves, he thinks it's a shame; he thought Spencer was being turned into a goods engine. It's fantastic to see Percy's cheekiness return, but I'm baffled as to how he could mistake Spencer for Thomas.

That afternoon, Thomas finds Spencer at the Blue Mountain Quarry and asks if he's collecting stone. While Spencer denies that he is, Thomas soon discovers that he is indeed taking stone to the estate for the Earl. Spencer is embarrassed as Thomas repeats the streamlined engine's quote from the night before. It's great to see Thomas' cheekiness return too, although it seemed that Spencer was like a Gordon clone in this scene. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that though; they both think they're high and mighty after all.

News quickly spreads about this, and the engines at Knapford wonder why the Earl would need stone. As they do, Toby appears (out of nowhere, I'll explain later) and says that Henry's broken down, which leads to one of the best Thomas and Friends quotes in recent memory:
Gordon: Don't tell me he (Henry) needs special coal again
Toby: No Gordon, that was fixed YEARS ago!
Younger fans may not understand this little dig at Sharon Miller's writing, but those older fans that do will have a bit of a laugh at it, and give Andrew Brenner even more praise. Toby then tells Percy that the Fat Controller wants him to take Henry's train to the estate. Percy leaves excitedly, but Emily worries that Percy won't be able to pull it alone. It was another nice scene to move the plot along, although the main highlight was probably that dig at the Sharon Miller era.

Percy arrives at the Docks to see James, who had been told HE would pull Henry's train, backing down on the trucks. Percy protests that he had been told to take as Toby said so, which leads to another dig at Sharon Miller's work:
James: Toby?! Since when dos HE tell other engines what to do?!
Thomas then arrives and proclaims HE had been chosen to take the train. As the three engines continue the argument - which includes James being coupled to the train while Thomas and Percy roll in front to block his path - the Fat Controller arrives and tells the engines they'll have to work together. It was another great scene that, again, moved things along very nicely.

After a musical interlude showing the trio's journey from the Docks to Ulfstead, they see the building materials and Jack the Front Loader, who reveals that he's helping with the building project: Ulfstead Castle's restoration. It was fantastic to see Jack again, and while it's understandable that some would think it feels feels weird that they didn't mention his overhaul (to be honest, I wouldn't have minded if that had been mentioned), I think it's rather natural that it wasn't. It's been 5 years since we've seen Jack in the TV series, and anything could have happened in that time. Again, it shows that Sodor doesn't just stop when the cameras aren't around.

As Thomas, Percy and James shunt the split train into position, the Earl notices a large crate that should have delivered to the Steamworks, which causes a dispute over who should take it there. The Earl suggests they all take it, which leads to another humorous dig at Sharon Miller's work:
James: You don't need THREE engines to pull ONE flatbed!
In the end, Thomas and Percy leave, with James following close behind. It's another humorous scene, but if the crate was meant for the Steamworks, why was it shunted together with the train bound for the Castle? Did the Earl forget to tell the dock manager about it?

At the Steamworks, Victor asks what's in the crate that takes so many engines to deliver it. At that moment, the Earl jumps out of Thomas' cab and asks the workers to lift the crate up. They do so, and reveal... Stephen the Rocket, the Earl's old friend! But because he hasn't been used for a long time, he looks old and decrepit. Victor promises that Stephen will soon look as good as new (even though the workmen are responsible for that) and the old engine is lifted off the flatbed further into the Works. As he leaves, Thomas asks the Earl what his plan his, to which the Earl responds that he'll find out soon enough. He also explains that he has a special job for Stephen, but it must be kept from him for the moment as there's a lot to do beforehand. I really like this scene; it's one of my favourites of the special. There's some superb expressions and humorous moments. Stephen's reveal also gives me goosebumps. There's absolutely no narration; the animation, music and the engines' expressions tell the entire story of that scene. It feels so natural, it's brilliant!

That night, Thomas, Percy and James tell the others about Stephen, who all get excited and wish to see him themselves. There are two things I really like:
  1. James saying that Stephen looked like he had been left in a "scrapyard". When was the last time that term was used? Series 8? I'm so glad they're bringing these terms back. Yes, this is a kids' show, but scrapyards have been an integral part of many classic series episodes and Railway Series stories. In fact, one of the best episodes ever (as voted for by fans), Escape, involved an engine being saved from scrap.
  2. Thomas saying that Stephen was an old design rather than an old engine. It feels as though that, now that HiT have hired a railway consultant, Thomas and Friends is turning kids into possible railway enthusiasts by using terms that most railway workers use (as well as using the correct terms for a locomotive's components). It feels more realistic because of it.
Next morning, Emily takes Henry, whose safety valve is still troubling him, to the Steamworks. High above the tracks, Stephen greets the two engines and explains the workmen want to examine his undercarriage and repair his wheels. Just then, all the engines, except for James, Thomas and Percy, arrive together (I'm not sure how that's possible considering the Steamworks has only one transfer table. Then again, this happened in the Sharon Miller era too) to see the old engine while making excuses to Victor - except Emily, whose reasoning is legitimate. As Toby explains their true reason for being there, Thomas and Percy appear behind Stephen. This is rather confusing, considering the tank engines were in the shed as Emily left.

Victor explains that Stephen is actually one of the first locomotives ever built (he says "steamies" but I hate that made up "word"), which leads on to Stephen explaining not only HIS history, but the history of railways in general, including the Rainhill Trials, without which we may never have had such a wide ranging railway network, nor would Thomas and Friends - or other railway based television shows and movies - even exist. We owe a lot to the Rocket, and the Trails, and for Andrew Brenner to bring that much historical depth to the TV series deserves commendation and respect. The only nitpick is that the Rocket could pull around 8 wagons rather than 4.

Percy then asks Stephen is he's ever seens knights in shining armour, to which came this reply:
Stephen: (chuckles) no! I may be old but I'm not THAT old!
Quotes likes this make me really warm to Stephen as a character, but I'll get to that later. The engines leave together (again, at the same time despite there only being one transfer table), but Percy stays behind, feeling rather embarrassed about the question he asked. Stephen comforts him, saying "asking questions is always a good way to learn new things". This is a fantastic moral for anyone, young and old. People never stop learning things, and asking questions is indeed probably one of the best way to learn. It's best to ask others though rather than Google, if only to socialise with another human being.

We then see another little montage, this time of Stephen's restoration. There was a bit more narration than the first one, but none of it felt forced. It seemed more natural, and the whole scene reminded me of Hiro's from Hero of the Rails. I'd love to see more of these scenes in more specials (if they're necessary, of course). The Fat Controller arrives and reminds the engines - who have all come to see Stephen restored - that they have work to do. As they leave (more unrealism with regards to the transfer table), the Fat Controller stops Thomas, Percy and James and tells them the Earl needs them for a special job.

As they begin to leave, Thomas notices how sad Stephen is and tries to cheer him up by telling him that the Earl has a job for him, too. James and Percy think it's a bad idea, but Stephen doesn't take him seriously because he's "an antique". It's a great scene which makes you feel sorry for Stephen, but one you can still have a chuckle at. One thing I have wondered (even when the first trailer was released) is why was Stephen's funnel painted black? Were they going to run a few more tests before they did so? I suppose we'll never know now.

As the three engines admire the castle's exterior, James sees some trucks full of rubble and wonders if their special job is to take them away. The Earl (on board Millie, tells them all to follow her, which leads to one of the best directed scenes ever. The direction is superb, there's no narration and the music is stunning. I get goosebumps every time I see it, even more so I saw it in the cinema. It just made everything feel like a huge spectacle; it made things feel special. I can't praise that scene highly enough.

At the Steamworks, Henry - who has now been fixed - returns to work while Stephen wonders what his new job is. He asks Victor and Kevin, but they know nothing about it. Victor tells Stephen to be patient, but Stephen's so excited that he decides not to be, and leaves the Steamworks to find his new job. Some would think that this is out of character for such an old engine, but I think it's rather understandable. It's like kids who've been grounded for a while; they have that same excitement about going out and they do become as impatient as Stephen is here.

Back at the castle, we learn that Thomas, Percy and James' job is to move a platform, that's lodged on flatbeds, into the right place so that the workmen can lower the roof beam sections into the right place. It was an excellent description by the narrator, and it really showed what the narrator's job should be now: to tell the story. Plus, this job feels like something that WOULD need three engines to do (a bit like Calling All Engines! where they needed Thomas to lower the bridge section into place). It was a really nice scene.

Meanwhile, Gordon encounters Spencer again and another race begins. As Gordon pulls ahead, he notices Stephen on the track - who hums a little tune, unaware of what's happening behind him. Gordon manages to slow down just in time as Spencer races past, declaring himself the winner. Gordon tells Stephen to hurry up, assuming he can go really fast due to his "Rocket" nickname, but Stephen says that he's going as fast as he can in hilarious fashion. However, where was Gordon's signal? If signals were used in this scene the near collision would never have happened. Also, since Stephen's one of the oldest engines, wouldn't it have been suiting if he'd hummed the classic theme? Just a thought... Ah well, the fact that was humming something made things seem more natural.

Thomas, Percy and James continue their work at the castle, but Percy becomes rather overzealous and pulls his flatbed too far, which causes a few tools to hit James' boiler. He tells Percy to pay attention, but Thomas thinks they both need to pay attention. But as Thomas pulls, everyone shouts for him to stop. He does so, but too late. One of the straps holding a beam up snaps and the beam crashes to the ground, causing dust to cover the engines. James, naturally, wants to go to the wash down, but Thomas tells him they have work to do. It's about time Thomas actually got his priorities straight, after getting them completely wrong for so many years. Although, while James' are a bit muddled, his response to Thomas' rebuttal about the work getting done was brilliant. It was a nice scene with some very good drama.

Stephen's job quest takes him to Brendam, where Paxton and Diesel are working. Diesel tries to boss Stephen around, saying that they have work to do. Stephen retaliates, calling the devious engine "Mr Oily", which gets a laugh from Paxton and a grumble from Diesel. Stephen tells them about his job, but Cranky claims that there's no work for him there. Diesel rolls past, boasting that the modern engines have work to do, but Paxton apologies as Stephen's job hunt continues. It's a brilliant scene that brought out the best in every character that was seen in it, especially Paxton.

Soon after the accident is cleared, Thomas, James and Percy finish their job without any further incident. The Earl praises them for a job well done, and tells them that everything is nearly ready for the big surprise. Percy guesses that the Earl is actually the King of Sodor, but he replies that that's not the case and he ushers them outside to reveal what the surprise really is. Again, it's another great sce that feels natural, even if there's very little action. It made the story progress brilliantly.

Stephen then arrives at the Blue Mountain Quarry, where he meets Skarloey, Rheneas and Luke. He asks them if the quarry is where he'll be working. Skarloey isn't sure, and while Luke raises his hopes by saying they could always use another engine, Rheneas is sceptical; he thinks Stephen won't be strong enough to handle the loads. But Stephen is determined to prove himself, so four trucks are arranged and shunted behind Stephen (how I don't know). Stephen tries to pull them, but fails. This continues until he finally pulls one truck. But he goes so fast around the bend that he nearly derails! Skarloey admires his kindness, but admits that his job may not be at the quarry. Stephen mentions his mining wagons were smaller and lighter than those at the quarry, and asks if there's a mine nearby. Skarloey remembers one - that's now abandoned - by Ulfstead Castle, so Stephen decides to investigate. It's another really good, dramatic scene that shows off the characters involved in it brilliantly.

Up at the castle, the three engines discover many historical artifacts standing on the platform, including a waving suit of armour (that's being assisted to move by a worker). The Earl announces his big surprise: to reopen Ulfstead Castle to the public as a museum of sorts. Thomas asks if Godred's crown will be one of the exhibits, but the Earl says it's still missing. However, since the work is nearly done, he tells Thomas that Stephen can now be told what his job is: Ulfstead's tour guide. It's another scene with very little action, but it moves the plot along nicely.

Meanwhile, Hiro, James (who was sent to be washed), Gordon and Spencer see two fast engines pass them. At a signal, the two express engines see the mainland visitors: Connor and Caitlin. They are streamlined engines who are bringing passengers to the opening of the castle. But for now, they're on a test run and time trial, and they offer to race Gordon and Spencer, but the two engines decline (intimidated by the speed of the two newcomers). As the signal drops, Connor and Caitlin race off, unfazed by Gordon and Spencer's refusal to race. It's rather amusing when the four speedy engines interact, and it's rather nice that Connor and Caitlin have a purpose, even if we know very little about their personalities in the special.

As Stephen heads towards the castle (looking for the mine), he sees another track and decides to head down it. He soon arrives at the mine, but discovers it has been boarded up and the track's supports are beginning to rot. He becomes rather depressed and begins to think that Thomas is wrong about him not having a job. It's a sad scene, one that makes you feel sorry for Stephen, but not in a way that makes you think it's a moaning little baby (I'm looking at you, Hiro...)

Up at the castle, Thomas and Percy get ready to push the trucks away, but the Earl is concerned and decides to call Sir Topham to send James Back. Thomas, who is too excited about telling Stephen about his job, is sure they can take it (which seems rather Miller-esque. Two steps forward, one step back :P) without help. As they set off, Percy worries about the slope, thinking one of them should be at the front (more common sense from Percy). But before they can do anything else, the trucks pull the engines down the hill and swerve down the track to the mine. Stephen hears them, but because there's no other way to go, he slams through the blocked entrance into the mine, while the trucks slam into the rocks that fall. Thankfully, no damage is done (how that's possible I REALLY don't know) and the engines pull the trucks away, unaware of Stephen's plight. It's a great scene full of real action, drama and suspense.

As the island of Sodor eagerly anticipates the opening of Ulfstead Castle, Thomas heads to the Steamworks to find Stephen, only to discover that he's not there. Victor tells him that he left to find his job. Thomas becomes worried; he knows that Stephen didn't know the specifics of the job. He finds Percy and James and tells them that "The Rocket" is missing. The red engine, rather unsympathetically, tells Thomas about the Earl's warning. Despite this, Thomas is determined to find Stephen and they all set off to begin the search. It was a really good scene that moved the plot along very well.

Percy looks around the castle, James goes to the Docks, while Thomas heads to the Blue Mountain Quarry. Millie and Jack tell Percy that he hasn't been up to the castle, Cranky tells James that Diesel told him to keep out of the way (although Cranky himself did tell Stephen that the Docks was no place for someone as old as himself) and Luke tells Thomas what happened between Stephen and the trucks. The narrator then says "nobody knew where Stephen was", which isn't true. Skarloey - who is right next to Luke, knew EXACTLY where "The Rocket" had gone as they talked about the mine near the castle earlier in the plot. A rather unusual error on Andrew Brenner's part (unless Skarloey wasn't meant to be in the scene and the animators just added him in).
In the mine, Stephen (now without a funnel due to the incident earlier) calls for help, to no avail. He then steams around the mine looking for an alternative entrance. As he does so, he hits some rocks, which cause a large rock slide. It's a great scene with some fantastic drama. And I'm glad that, again, the narrator was used sparingly, not every two seconds for no real reason. It feels natural, and we're able to hear Robert and Peter Hartshorne's music much more clearly and appreciate it a bit more.

At the sheds, Thomas tells the others about Stephen's disappearance. Gordon tries to reassure him that he won't be too far away, but the tank engine thinks "The Rocket" is in danger. Despite Gordon telling him that he shouldn't have said that Stephen had a job, Thomas is adamant that he does have one and is determined to find him. It's a good scene with a bit of tension. That's all that can be said about that, really!

As the dust settles in the mine, Stephen discovers a large chest among the rocks. He bumps it and it slowly opens (no idea how :P). He is shocked to discover... we don't really know at this point as the scene moves back to Tidmouth before we find out. I like the cliffhanger style ending to the scene. It really makes you wonder what Stephen has found, so it does its job brilliantly.

Thomas wakes the engines at the crack of dawn (with a quote that feels like Sharon Miller wrote it. Again, two steps forward, one step back :P) to help him find Stephen. The Fat Controller arrives and asks where Percy, James and Thomas are going, to which the little blue engine explains about Stephen's disappearance. Just then, the Earl drives up asking about his engine while also pointing out that he's needed for the castle's opening the next day. The Fat Controller agrees to let Thomas, Percy and James help with the search and and he also alerts the Sodor Search and Rescue Centre (albeit off-camera). You can really tell from the Earl and the Fat Controller that finding Stephen is an urgent situation, but Thomas sounds a bit too jovial, until he realises how urgent things are.

After another musical montage showing some engines, Harold and, strangely, Captain (a certain Series 3 quote about engines being unable to floats springs to mind here! :P) looking for Stephen, we're taken back to the mine where "The Rocket" - who's nearly out of steam now - discovers that he's run around in a loop. But as he reverses, trying to find another exit, he stops, unable to move another inch. It's another great piece of drama that, again, makes you feel sorry for him without making him seem like an overgrown baby.

Thomas and Percy pass the track to the old mine. While Thomas thinks that Stephen isn't there, citing the incident with the trucks, Percy thinks it would be better to check just in case. Thomas agrees to go, while Percy checks around the (Blue Mountain) quarry again. Thomas soon comes to the blocked entrance, and comes to the conclusion that Stephen isn't there... until he sees "The Rocket"'s funnel down below. Thomas whistles, but while Stephen hears it, he can't whistle back. Thomas begins to slowly reverse away, until Stephen finally manages to summon up enough steam for one long, loud whistle. Thomas hears this, and races up to the castle to get help. Again, there's a lot of emotion in this scene. You feel hope for Stephen who's trying to whistle and you feel for Thomas who can't find his friend. But then you have that sense of joy for both of them when Stephen finally manages to whistle.

Thomas returns to the mine with Jack, who moves the rocks out of the way. With the entrance clear, Thomas puffs carefully in and soon finds Stephen. "The Rocket" tells Thomas that he was wrong; no one would want an old fashioned engine. But Thomas rubbishes this and tells Stephen what his real job is. Stephen is delighted and grateful. As the two engines leave the mine, they see Percy, James, Harold, Jack and the Earl waiting. As Thomas begins to pull Stephen to safer tracks, "The Rocket" begins to tell the Earl about the chest he found, but the track collapses. In a kind of "homage" to Series 6's "A Friend in Need", Jack jumps in and manages to hold the track steady long enough for Thomas to pull Stephen to safety. The Earl congratulates Thomas and Jack on their fine efforts and the party planning continues. It's another dramatic, yet great, scene. And while Jack holding the track up is rather unrealistic, it is a nice nod to the classic series which I really enjoyed (especially since I love The Pack episodes; they're the only episodes, apart from Series 7, that HiT got right until Series 17 came along). One goof with this scene though is that when James says "Oh my!", it's said in his American voice!

The opening of Ulfstead Castle arrives! Everyone and everything is decorated for the occasion. Stephen arrives (with his funnel coloured correctly) and the Earl steps up to the podium to deliver his speech... in a suit of armour. He welcomes everyone and hopes the castle and grounds are restored to their full former glory (as there's sill a bit more work to do). He introduces Stephen and Millie, the tour guides of the castle and grounds, and reveals that Stephen found King Godred's crown in the mine! Thomas then apologises to Stephen for prematurely telling him about his job, but "The Rocket" reminds the tank engine that, had he said nothing, the crown would still be lost. The Earl then proposes a race between Connor and Caitlin, but they think it would be more fun if Gordon and Spencer raced with them. The Earl and the Fat Controller agree, as it's a special occasion, and the race begins. The special ends with Thomas and Stephen overlooking the race from the castle and a musical montage of clips from the special. It was a great end that closed the story really well.

For their tenure, Arc Productions decided that they would assign two different teams to work on the specials and the episodes. Personally, I'm fine with this. If anything, it's brilliant. It relieves some of the stress on the team working on the television series, so that they can make each episode look as good as it can. Likewise with the team working on the specials.

As a debut, Arc did an excellent job. The scenery looked amazing, as did the characters. What really impressed me is that they could show off the environment and characters amazingly. The camera angles were a lot more dynamic and no two feel the same, unlike Nitrogen's work and, to an extent, David Mitton's. They both picked a camera angle they liked and stuck with it (not saying they're bad, I'm saying they felt the same because the angles never changed, unlike Arc).

However, there are a few problems. Some are minor, some are major, so I'll get the minor ones out of the way first. One tiny nitpick first: safety valves are near the cab and whistle, not the cylinders. Now, to the main goofs:

As Connor and Caitlin arrive with visitors, we can see (if you look close enough) that Caitlin's coaches are uncoupled. Considering that Caitlin is going rather fast, this is rather hard to see, and it is slightly more forgivable. Let's face it, Nitrogen weren't perfect on THEIR first try! (but at least Arc remembered that when an engine moves, so do their wheels)

When Spencer returns to Sodor (near the start), his nameplate is blank and his wheels are black. It's rather odd that they'd forget these details, however I do love Spencer having black wheels (see my Hornby Spencer review to find out why) and I was a tad disappointed that it was only a goof.

This is rather concerning. While I can understand why it was being done, it is rather unrealistic, almost Chuggington-esque. Which reminds me, the engines shake a lot throughout the CG era. While it's probably done to keep kids interested, it's not realistic. Surely, if they wanted to see engines jump about all over the place, they'd watch Chuggington. Saying that, though, I'm glad the whistles aren't bobbing up and down anymore, so kudos to Arc in that respect.

This is an odd one, as you can barely see it, unless it's pointed out. One of Thomas' wheel arches is rusty only in this shot. I'm all for adding detail to models, but rust? Especially since he hasn't done anything to make him rust? It's a bit weird to me. But it DOES lead on to the major problems quite nicely.

First off, we see Thomas puffing up to the castle with four trucks and a brake van. However, when he notices the crate with the armour in (and shots thereafter), the brake van disappears.

Then, there's the heavy goods train. On the left are the trucks as they were pulled to the castle. On the right is the same train they pulled in a completely different order.

Skarloey pulls up next to Stephen after the near disaster, but after Stephen asks where the mine is, the camera turns to Skarloey and "The Rocket" disappears.

As Connor passes Gordon and Spencer, his main coaches are the normal designs, but the brake coach is based on normal Express brake coaches (although that's difficult to see).

As Henry leaves the yard with his goods train, he pulls 8 trucks and a brake van, three of which are covered. When he's seen a couple of shots later, two trucks disappear and the first truck is uncovered.

Before Emily takes Henry to the Steamworks, the big green engine is seen without his coupling rods. A few seconds later, the rods have been replaced.

These things may seem minimal, but all these things show off one major problem with the animation: inconsistency. It's a basic (albeit unwritten) law in film making that scenes need to be consistent with each other, and some scenes in this special are not. This is something they really need to work on.

Can you see it? A narrow gauge engine (I'm guessing Skarloey) is pulling standard gauge trucks on narrow gauge tracks! I really don't know how they can get track gauges mixed up; Nitrogen never did! Even when the only narrow gauge track we saw was in the Steamworks! (any gauge errors were from the writers)

Another big irk for me is the incidents of "wrong roading", trains going up down lines. If Thomas was based on an American railway, it wouldn't be a problem, but it's based on the British railway network, where trains travel on the left hand track going up and the right track going down. There were some instances of wrong roading in the Nitrogen and model eras, but it's become more prominent and noticeable now that Arc are in charge.

This scene looks beautiful with the sunrise sky, but does anyone else think the yard look rather... dry? There's nothing there at all, and that makes things look rather plain. It doesn't look like a railway yard at all, despite there being railway tracks all over the place.

Emily and Toby are seen arriving at platform 3 and 4 at Knapford... despite the fact that the platforms end at buffers. What were they thinking? Wouldn't it have made more sense to put Hiro and Percy by platforms 3 and 4 instead?

One example of many
Finally, the biggest problem: engines going over points that aren't set for them. This was a problem in the Nitrogen era too, but in this special this problem is a lot more prominent and consistent.

Despite all these issues though, the animation does look wonderful. The faces and environments look a lot better and the angles are, as I've said, amazing.

This sequence involving the book designs was absolutely superb. It felt like a real story was being told, from the narration to the animation.

Like the previous, this was excellent. It had an old world feel to it, and the added little extras on the side of the Rocket's specifications, as well as those of the other old engines, were lovely. I also quite liked the allusions to previous episodes/specials within the animation.

The situations may not be completely the same, but the end result was near identical. As I've said, I really enjoy watching the Pack episodes, and having a portion of one being recreated in CGI, somewhat, was great to see.

I also thought that it was quite nice that Arc paid homage to Nitrogen by recreating some shots from Hero of the Rails - although I'm guessing that this is coincidental rather than intentional. And yes, the settings aren't completely identical, but the uncertainty and drama created by them - as well as the slow rolling through the overgrown environment - are pretty similar.

I'm not really sure why they recreated this one, though. It's rather unrealistic and dangerous. Not to mention the fact that, had Spencer not been wrong roading in the first place, both shots (from Nitrogen AND Arc) would've been pointless. But hey, they were indeed added and both look pretty good.

And I'm glad that, unlike Nitrogen, Arc's first special included brake vans throughout, and they were based on the ones seen predominantly in the early series, so a huge kudos to Arc's team there! I also can't mention the positives of the animation without mentioning this. I must say that it is a perfect shot; it finished the special off fantastically.

New Characters

Connor and Caitlin
I've decided to review these two together as they both have the same positives and negatives.

Thomas fans (especially British ones) have never had a soft spot for American locomotives on Sodor, mainly because American and British loading gauges are completely different. However, Victor is foreign and he is a popular character. Hiro's Japanese and he's a popular character. Heck, even Rosie has American roots and female fans love her! Not to mention the fact that Stanley (Railway Series) was American!

I thought that it was because of the designs of the characters (especially Hank with a front coupling on his cowcatcher rather than a proper buffer beam), but from my perspective, that's not the main reason. I realise now that I didn't like Hank or the Logging Locos because they had nothing about them as characters to make me like them. While it was nice that Hank was portrayed as a gentle giant, we already have one: Mudoch! And as for the Misty Island trio? Well they're goofy, stupid, unnatural and downright irritating.

Connor and Caitlin have something about them though: a purpose. A reason to actually be introduced. They have their own role and I'm perfectly fine with that. And while I agree that there are a few British streamliners that could have been used as bases, I really don't care that much as they just look fantastic in my opinion.

The only problem with them is that the plot was so focused on Ulfstead Castle, Stephen and the Earl, these two were pretty much left aside until half-way through the special, which meant we never really learnt much about them as characters, which is a disappointment. But since they have roles to play, it means they also have potential to grow, which is what Caitlin did in "Calm Down Caitlin" and Connor (hopefully) will do in "Bill or Ben?" (although he'll probably be overshadowed again by the returning China Clay twins...)

Millie is another foreign based character who charmed the hearts of many. But like Connor and Caitlin, you have to wonder if that would have been the case had "The Switch" not aired before this special. While she IS seen more prominently than the two visitors, she was still overshadowed by other characters and the main plot. Regardless, she looks beautiful, her voice actress is fantastic and she has great potential. It's a bit of a shame we never heard her speak French, but here's hoping she will in the future!

Sir Robert Norramby
What can I say about Robert Norramby? He's absolutely superb! He's funny, his voice actor is tremendous and he just looks so animated (no pun intended)! People like him (and Dowager Hatt and her friends) are perfect examples of why the show NEEDED the CGI change. They would never have worked in the model series at all (side note, I know Dowager Hatt was introduced in Series 5, but I only like her in the CGI series).

It's a shame for those who think otherwise as you never really got much of an idea as to what the people were like as models unless they said something (and how they said it). Now though, you can see exactly how they feel and they don't need to say a single word.

Stephen is basically the locomotive version of Robert Norramby: full of characteristic charm, full of humour (unlike Charlie, Stephen and Robert are funny without even trying to be) and tremendous voice acting.

And while I do agree with those that say they've edited him (there are a few bits added which "The Rocket" doesn't have) to make him more like a character, you have to remember this is Thomas and Friends we're talking about. I don't mind them making a few little creative changes, as long as they don't go over the top with them (like they did with Belle). To me, Stephen's is the perfect way to bring Stephenson's Rocket into the television series as a character, and the fact that his job suits him down to the ground is icing on the cake.

There's not much to say about Jack that I haven't already said, so if you want to read my full thoughts, click here.

All I'll say is that it was a delight to see him again. He looks more realistic and his voice and persona suit him brilliantly.

Ulfstead Castle
For this special, fans were introduced to Ulfstead Castle. And I have to say that it looks absolutely gorgeous! From its ruined state to the building stages all the way to its completion, it was a joy to watch the scenes in and around the castle. It was also helped by the amazing camera angles from Arc. You could just tell that they know how to show it off in the best ways possible, and they did.

I personally hope we get to see more of the castle's inner workings. Maybe a Stephen and Millie episode is on the cards..? That would be interesting, actually!

Voice Actors
As usual, every character was voiced fantastically well. Say what you want about Sharon Miller the writer, but you cannot deny that Sharon Miller the voice director has done an excellent job since taking over in Series 14.

I thought it was strange that the American engines were given Irish accents, but it was actually very clever as the places that Connor and Caitlin worked had a lot of Irish people working there. Maybe they did their research on more than just the story..?

I'm not sure if Miranda Raison is French or if she's just acting, but the accent she gives Millie is fantastic. It sounds so authentic! Now, it would be very interesting if she spoke in her native tongue a bit more. It would be a great learning tool for children.

The trucks sounded fantastic too, actually! Voiced by Glenn Wrage, an American - which doesn't bother me a bit, to be honest - they sounded young, troublesome and really funny, every attribute was rolled into one by that fantastic voice. It just goes to show: it doesn't matter where you're from, as long as you're good at what you do, that's all that really matters.

Jack's voice, performed by Steve Kynman, is great as well. He sounds very young and lively, which is basically Jack's personality vocally. The only qualm is that it sounds rather similar to Paxton, although considering they share the same voice actor, that is hardly surprising.

The narration by Mark Moraghan (who'll narrate the US episode and special dubs too) is fantastic. He has the perfect balance of the previous two UK narrators which, in my book, makes him better than them both. He just knows how to set the scenes brilliantly, and the best part is he's only being used when necessary, rather than being given so much unneeded dialogue which feels more like padding than storytelling.

The best two voices though are Bob Golding (Stephen) and Mike Grady (The Earl). I can't decide which is the best overall, but they both sound amazing. They suit the characters perfectly and, by the sounds of things, they seem like they're having a blast voicing them.

The other voices haven't changed much, so my opinions haven't changed on those. They're all great still.

Music and Songs
I'm so glad the Hartshornes were kept despite the production changes. Again, their music is remarkable here, and each track suited the scene it was used in perfectly.

As for the songs? Well let's just say one made me realise this fanbase has no respect or acceptance for an opinion that's different. The original version of It's Gonna Be a Great Day sounded extremely unnatural and the singer put absolutely no effort into it at all in my opinion. The version released on DVD is so much better. Sam Blewitt sounds like he really enjoys performing these songs, and I enjoy listening to his performances.

Searching Everywhere was great, but I thought it sounded rather joyful for the scene it was used for. Despite that though, it's extremely catchy and a great listen.

Working Together Again was fantastic as well, although I'm rather hoping that it won't be used again for another special. If it's used too much, it'll lose its sparkle and will just become annoying. It's bad enough that fans use the same song constantly in multiple videos (and I'll admit, I'm one of them).

Overall Film Opinions
Blue Mountain Mystery was a turning point. King of the Railway took the ball that special blew up and ran with it. It was absolutely amazing and it's definitely my favourite special of the lot (overtaking The Great Discovery). The dialogue felt more natural, the narration wasn't overbearing, the research was plentiful and the story progressed brilliantly. However, because of the errors seen animation-wise, I cannot give it a higher rating than The Great Discovery.
Film Rating: 8.5/10

DVD Bonus Features
Compared to Blue Mountain Mystery, this DVD's features seem to be lacking something. All we are given were sing alongs of the three songs featured in the special and four Guess Who puzzles of the new characters. This is a shame as they could have done a learning segment exploring Sodor's history a bit more. Or maybe they could have delved deeper into the Rainhill Trials. But considering the historical pieces we got in the special itself, it's not the end of the world that there was nothing in the bonus features. I DO think they may have been missed opportunities though.
Overall DVD Opinion
Fans have been wanting a good, solid storyline for a special for years. Last year was real progress, and this year Andrew Brenner delivered again. It basically has pretty much everything, and for the price you pay for it, I'd say it's excellent value for money.


That's the King of the Railway review concluded.  If you agree/disagree, please leave your comments below :)