Monday, 26 January 2015

Series 18 Overview

Another series has come and gone, so it's high time I gave it one last hurrah before moving on to what the 70th anniversary celebrations have in store!

A little note before we start. Since some of these episodes aired five months ago, some of my opinions and scores might have changed around a bit, but on the whole, they're still pretty similar. I'll also be discussing these in order from my least favourite to my most favourite. Finally, I will (hopefully) clarify some things I didn't really pick up on during the initial reviews, or others that have been brought up by fans either on my reviews, on Twitter or episode uploads from YouTube and Dailymotion.

We kick off where the series left off. I don't know what it is with this team, but it seems like they can't do series finales. While The Afternoon Tea Express wasn't the worst episode of series 17, it was the most average. This one was just bad, and the sad part is it's really easy to fix. With the addition of transitions and maybe some dents on the car and the bike - making Samson seem less stupid - this could have been good! But they dropped the ball completely.

Yes, I agree with the majority that it was nice not to see any of the Steam Team here. It's a breath of fresh air, and I'd love to see more episodes that have no Steam Team members in the future. But I've said it in my Samson At Your Service review and I'll say it here: unless they have a bearing on the plot, the cast of characters does not factor into my reviews. And for me, the cast they chose here, and the story that was told with them, had a negative effect on it.

Wow, the filler... This episode did have its moments, but the run time just felt far too long for the story they wanted to tell. This would've been bearable if the conflict wasn't so weak. I would have preferred the twins making up a stupid excuse for Timothy finding the rainbow truck, but they don't; instead relying on the fact that its colours are unique. And considering how suspicious Timothy was of the twins when they brought it up, I find it hard to believe he'd be gullible enough to believe them without solid reasoning.

Well, what do you know? Andrew Brenner has a dud in him as well!

For me, this was his biggest disappointment, as I thought he'd have ironed out all of the errors in his work over 20 years of writing experience, one of which was spent as a head writer of Fireman Sam, and one of his stories for this show being Too Many Fire Engines. So to see the fire where it was, regardless of Millie's retribution, was inexcusable.

And it's a shame, too, as the character interactions were really good for the most part.

For me though, this review showed that I can accept opinions. Originally, I liked this episode quite a bit. I gave it an 8/10 and everything. But after a discussion on Twitter with Thomasfan from the Thomas Wikia, I realised how flawed the episode was, and how big they were. For me, it's simple. I'm willing to listen to any opinions, as long as they're well thought out and you can back them up. If neither of these criteria are met, how can you expect me to take an opinion seriously?

I stick by my review of this review... apart from the score. I think I gave it too high of one first time around. It's not great, but it's not bad either. The conflict is a lot more believable here than the previous two episodes I've talked about - as well as Percy and the Monster of Brendam - due to the atmosphere, and I personally think Henry was in character here. When there are sounds around you that you can't explain the existence of, you will become scared, no matter what you say.

So yeah, to me it's just average.

This had the potential to be great. Everything was there: the believable conflict, the great character interactions, the near perfect storytelling. But that's the problem: it's near perfect.

Despite what fans say, I truly believe this episode could have worked with Toby. Remove the dialogue mentioning that everyone knew he was scared of the junction, and actually mention that it had been newly laid, and it would have been brilliant. And yes, I do believe Toby would feel intimidated, because he's never experienced gantry signals before.

It also could have worked if a newer character had been in Toby's place. Maybe a really small tank engine like Porter (if they'd given a reason why he was away from the docks). Rosie or Stanley would have sufficed as well.

As for that little cameo? I really don't care, and people who are judging this solely on Ferdinand's appearance are extremely shallow.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Plot Hole City (well, Marion and the Dinosaurs was close to taking that crown, but this was the king since the story didn't hold up enough to hide them). I'm not going to rant on again about them all, but instead let's talk about the "contingency plan" thing I brought up.

By this point, Spencer's VIP had aired on TV. Whether it was produced before or after this I'm not sure. But going in order that the episodes aired on TV (and, in this case, released on DVD) the Fat Controller has an award for services to transport. You'd think he'd know how to run a railway more efficiently than this. Maybe keep some coaches behind in case of emergency, rather than simply "making do". I highly doubt that he would allow one of the most important trains on Sodor to consist of two ancient four wheel coaches who hate life in the fast lane. And I highly doubt that Thomas could run his trains with one coach! In Overloaded from the Railway Series, Toby struggled with just Henrietta and he was only doing his usual job!

It's episodes like this that make me think the writers are either confused as to which writing style to keep or they're just throwing logic out of the window to allow stories like these to happen. Either way, they need to get this problem under control fast because, while I don't think it'll revert to those days, watching episodes like this will become more and more infuriating in the future because we know they're capable of better quality, more coherent episodes than this.

This episode is great... until the ending. I originally gave it a 7, but the ending is so bad, I deducted a point. I wouldn't have minded it if there wasn't a scene after Hiro brought them back where things could have been wrapped up a lot better. No one received any consequences for their actions. While I understand why Caitlin didn't (to an extent), Charlie, nor the worker who coupled Annie and Clarabel to Caitlin's coaches, were brought to account for what had happened, meaning they'll probably make the same mistake again. Heck, the worker from this episode was probably also used in Samson At Your Service (it wouldn't surprise me)!

I mentioned that this plot was similar to Thomas and Gordon in the review, but in retrospect, that did this plot much better. There, Thomas was slow to fire up, causing him to be late to the platform with the coaches. Since the porters and other workers were busy getting everyone on the train as fast as they could, it would be understandable that they'd forget to uncouple Thomas. And his ride behind the train was enough of a punishment as he'd learnt his lesson. Here, there was no rush to get Caitlin's train ready, so the workmen came across as stupid (I'd say Charlie did too, but the series has established that he's extremely laid back). It's a shame, too, as the rest of the episode was well put together.

I don't think this episode is too bad, but out of all the episodes that received a 7/10 rating, it's definitely one of the lower end 7/10s. It does tell a good, heartwarming story, and it brings Gator's arc to a nice conclusion, but I can understand why fans would think this was boring due to the repetition. That said, it was weird that, although Gator came back for Christmas, he was only seen here.

This is definitely the best episode that feels "unrealistic" because I can actually believe the things that happened here a lot more than other unrealistic episodes. Not only that, but the story felt a lot more complete than the others on the Dinos and Discoveries DVD. The only real problem here was the contrivance from a railway standpoint. But there's nothing more to say about it; it's a really fun watch with a nice story.

Andrew Brenner's strength lies within the slice of life stories, and this was a prime example. That said, out of all of his slice of life stories, this is one of my least favourites. It's not bad by any stretch; the plot is OK, the humour's good, the characters are fantastic (except maybe Percy, who felt slightly shoehorned) and it was great to see the character who messed up realise it in a natural way. But it just didn't feel as entertaining as his other efforts.

This is one of the better Dinos and Discoveries episodes if you ignore the gaping plot holes. I like how Marion was handled here. And yes, I can believe her attitude here completely.

The first time she saw the models, it was dark. They were quite a distance away, the flatbeds were covered by the trees and the ambience would make things feel rather intimidating for anyone. As for her being scared in the day? Sleep deprivation can mess with anyone's thought processes. Despite that though, the dinosaur models do look pretty realistic, so it would feel like more of a surprise if she wasn't taken aback by what she was seeing.

This episode made Marion a more rounded character as far as I'm concerned. Chatty, hard working, proud of what she does, but also rather clumsy.

It's a bit of a shame they didn't do any more with this section of track, although the pipeline probably would have restricted the story potential.

One thing I didn't notice in my actual review: why was the embankment being repaired? It doesn't really say, and nothing's shown, so it just seems like they're digging at a perfectly stable hill. If the writers have to improve somewhere in future series, it's to make the catalysts of the stories consistently strong for each episode.

For me, the arc revolving around Gator was really intriguing. While Long Lost Friend ended it on a slightly disappointing note, this episode was great.

Yeah, I can still see the complaints that it's similar to Tale of the Brave, but as far as I'm concerned, this was the perfect follow up to it. Like I said in the review, it's easy to be brave when you know your friends are in the vicinity, but it's a testament to how brave you are if you can be courageous when there's no one else around to help.

Hopefully, this is the end of Percy needing to prove his bravery. If it is, it was a brilliant way for that part of the saddle tank engine's personality to be laid to rest.

It's a bit of a shame this episode isn't really liked by most fans. I didn't expect it to be in fans' best of lists, but it does still tell a good story. And it shows that you can celebrate Christmas in many different ways, which I think is really nice. It's sad that people think that, just because you don't have huge outdoor and/or indoor displays, you don't like Christmas (for the record, you can blame its commercialisation for that!). So this episode felt like a breath of fresh air for me, even if it's a rehash of Salty's Surprise.

This was a brilliant way to bring Oliver and Toad back into the series. Oliver's boasting revealed to kids what his nature's like (even if that should've cooled after series 4, but I digress) while Toad's portrayal was excellent.

I said in my review that that this was better than Busy Going Backwards and I stand by that. Both episodes bend the laws of probability, but while it's completely bent in the series 5 episode (Toad would never have gone that far, even with no guard to apply his brakes), here it's a slight twitch (it takes a while for Toad to get from the top of the hill to Thomas' buffers).

Other than that, there's nothing else to add, really. It's just a really solid episode with a nice ending.

I was a bit harsh on this episode in my initial review. While I do still think it's pretty illogical that Thomas would be forced to run the branch line with only Clarabel, looking back, the bird watcher acknowledging what he'd done wrong was enough for a kids show. Besides, it does teach kids not to call an emergengy when there isn't one.

It was also a really good way to teach kids that two wrongs don't make a right, which is a brilliant moral for kids to learn these days. And for me, the whole episode can be described with that one word: brilliant.

While I liked Toad in Toad's Adventure, I loved him here. He was an excellent foil for Gator, and it also showed that you should sometimes listen to someone with experience, which is a very strong moral.

I suppose I'd better talk about Gator's arc. It was a lot better than Samson's. There were some inconsistencies here and there, but the stories told within it were relatively strong, and while I think Long Lost Friend is the weakest part, and a really disappointing ending, it did tell a coherent story throughout that never felt contrived. The only main problem it had was Gator's appearing feeling rather convoluted in terms of railway operations.

Overall though, I'm glad they tried to make two arcs this series. Hopefully they try again in the future, and hopefully it will be a lot stronger than Samson's and better than Gator's.

This was one of the most entertaining episodes of the series, The morals were great and seeing the interaction between the passengers was great, especially at the end where Duncan apologises for something he knew he did wrong.

The only thing I thought was off-putting, on reflection was a similar problem I had with Samson At Your Service: no contingency plan. I really don't believe that the Skarloey Railway has only six coaches. But this was a more entertaining watch, so it was more a distraction than anything.

This episode gets this rating with a warning: do not keep using Paxton's naivety as a constant catalyst for a story. It's going to start getting really old, really quickly.

At least here, it was more believable than it was in The Lost Puff where it felt like he was stupid more than naive, but as I say, they're walking a fine line. I won't mind if he keeps his naivety in secondary roles as it can be varied a bit more, but it will get annoying if it becomes overused.

That said, the moral here was brilliant and while, yes, the kids on the level crossing annoyed me, after a talk with a DeviantART user, I realised it wasn't worth taking two points off (it was originally a 7/10). This is probably another example that I can accept genuine feedback to my reviews, so don't feel scared to say what you think. It's only when I don't understand the overreaction kicks in

This was definitely the most entertaining episode of the series, and it actually got right what Timothy and the Rainbow Truck got wrong: its character interactions were brilliant throughout.

Timothy is a brilliant foil. He plays off Bill and Ben (and vice versa) brilliantly. But when he's alone for a long time, he just isn't too interesting. The kind hearted oil burning engine - despite the contrary being stated here - has been done by Victor, while his pride in who he is, while admirable, is similar to Porter.. I'm rather hoping he comes into his own in future series.

The term "modern classic" has been used to describe a few episodes since the new team took over, and the next three would definitely fall into that category for me.

With this one, the classic references were great, and adding that the brake van couldn't hold them was a nice touch as well. It was something that hadn't been mentioned episodes like Thomas and the Trucks, even the original, so I was glad that it was mentioned here. And while, yes, Diesel and Mavis' sub-plot was repetitive, but it actually worked pretty well as it showed a nice little clash between the two.

The more I watch this episode, the more I appreciate what it did, chiefly because it taught a brilliant moral to the character that should have learned it.

We've seen many episodes where Spencer has been rather arrogant in the past, and the only one that really did a good job was Gordon and Spencer. But that was more an episode that tried to bring Gordon down a peg rather than teaching Spencer anything.

Here though, Spencer is the one that's overconfident, he realises that it wasn't the best way to get the job done and we see him going through some inner turmoil, showing that he'd truly learned from his mistake. His predicament was also a nice reference to Wrong Road.

And I can believe that every engine can get overconfident in the same way. Remember, every time an important person came to Sodor, everyone became extremely arrogant, thinking they'd get the job.

Like I said, it's a brilliant episode with a great moral.

This is, by far, the best series opener the show has had, and it's the episode that made me realise that Andrew Brenner understood the old characters completely.

Yes, you could say that he should know that Thomas has a branch line to run and yeah, I'd agree with that. But for me, that contrivance doesn't detract from the story that was told. It redeemed a fan favourite character and it taught kids that you should never take your friends for granted, which was lovely.

I saw a comment on my initial review that the moral would be a "bad influence" on kids, which I don't really understand. Not fully, anyway. I do think that Rusty's comment was a bit too... general, rather than focusing solely on Duncan's attitude at Christmas. But Duncan and Mr Percival's comments made up for it, I think.

The Thin Controller was trying to force someone to change their ways, which is something you really should not do. Sure, you can guide them to change, but the more you try and force, the more they'll fight back. Remember, Duncan's change was extremely forced throughout the second act, with a false smile and everything (for the record, his reactions were pretty funny). He was only genuinely happy after he helped Luke after shouting at him. His own actions made him see what consequences they had, and he vowed then to turn things around. It was a genuine moment, and it was the moment that made me think the moral it taught was admirable.

So yes, I stand by my review of this episode, and I stand by the score I gave it.

Have you ever made a couple of lists only to regret your decisions soon after they were released? Yeah, that's how I feel here. Because after further viewing, I feel that the final episode I've featured in this post was slightly better than this, and to be honest, that's all down to the "joke" with Emily.

I'm not going to say what it is since pretty much everyone knows what it is by now. Instead, I'm going to explain how a mean spirited scene works. The set up here was done very well, with Emily feeling bad that there were no spaces left. The best way to end it is to have the (protagonist) character that was hurt come out on top - in this case, giving Emily a space in the shed. But that didn't happen, and to this day, it still leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

That said, the joke had nothing to do with the plot, and the story, character interactions and the Duck's back story were done so well that it more than makes up for it. But my number one pick has much more as far as I'm concerned.

Someone was rather surprised that I picked up on the scene with the kid on crutches, while mentioning a story in the British media about a FirstGroup bus refusing to allow a disabled person on a bus because there was a buggy already in the space. I didn't reference it in the original review because I kept in mind that this episode was produced long before that incident made it into mainstream media, so it felt a bit unfair to criticise it too much for not capitalising on that opportunity. Also, every engine was hell bent on getting every passenger home, which made me forget about that completely.

I've also seen people complaining about those who think Duck and Oliver's appearance was pointless. For me, the reason is simple: the exposition is unnecessary to Oliver.

Yes, kids probably won't know how the North Western Railway operates at Christmas, but Oliver has worked there since 1967 (or 1992 if you're going by TV continuity). He should know what the process is! For this to be more effective, they should have included a newer engine, who may not know how things work, like Porter or Gator. Revealing exposition to characters who should already know what it is makes it seem like they're stupid.

One thing I didn't pick up on was the Fat Controller looking at the family that embraced when he was announcing the snow had blocked the main line. It's an extremely sweet moment, and the fact that he could empathise with that family, and the struggles of the other people getting home, made the moment all the stronger, which really touched me.

All in all, this episode was utterly beautiful. It's my favourite episode of the series and my second favourite of the entire show.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts
This series was to series 17 what fans thought series 16 was to series 15: a vast improvement. Yes, there were a couple of duds, but the worst episode here was much better than the worst from the last series. The best episodes here were also much better here than series 17. After all, this is the first series I've given three episodes a perfect 10. Unfortunately, I don't think it's as good as series 2 though since I only gave one episode from that series less than a 6, but this series had five. That being said, the high scoring episodes here would fit right in with the best from the classic series and, heck, the best Railway Series stories.

Samson, for me, is on a knife edge as far as likeness is concerned. Up until Samson Sent for Scrap, he was a fantastic character. It was a nice change of pace to see a character like him, but it only goes so far before he becomes a bad character (I don't mean an antagonist; characters can be brilliant while still being bad guys). You see, good characters usually learn lessons. Even Diesel has learned a few over his time! He told lies to get rid of Duck, but since he was found out and sent away, he hasn't told another. He's also learnt that steam engines have their uses. Diesel 10 learnt that patience is a virtue. Samson has never learnt from his experiences! It was understandable that he hadn't learnt from Marion and the Dinosaurs in Samson At Your Service because he couldn't have known what had happened (his driver and fireman could, but that's another story). It was also made clear that he was trying to prove himself when no one would believe in him. That was completely negated in Samson Sent for Scrap as he was still as stubborn as he was when he arrived! Hopefully Samson does end up learning from his mistakes soon, because I really want to like him.

The animation here was brilliant as well. Sure, there were eras here and there, but they didn't really detract from the overall look. Some of the shots were absolutely breathtaking, especially on the narrow gauge railway, the angles and panning shots continued to push what the CG era is capable of. It's a bit of a shame there was a change of directors halfway through as I would have liked to have seen more of what David Stoten was capable of. That said, Don Spencer did a brilliant job while he was at the helm too, so I'll be looking forward to more great direction from him in the future (if he sticks around).

Overall, the show is definitely on the up, and I'm really excited for things to come this year. With a 44 minute special chronicling the back story of the TV series coming to the UK in April (ASDA exclusive), Sodor's Legends of the Lost Treasure coming in August and series 19 coming soon after that, it's a very exciting time to be a Thomas fan!
Final Rating: 8.5/10

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Film Review: Thomas and the Magic Railroad

Well, it's high time I returned to a review which, looking back, I really do not like. It's not because I like the film, it's because it's really... messy. It never really tackles any of the issues with its story, characters or plot devices. So here are my updated thoughts on Shining Ti... sorry, Thomas and the Magic Railroad.

So let's start with the story. It's terribly convoluted on all accounts. First of all, it's stated that Sodor is at one end of Mr Conductor's "special universe" while Shining Time is at another. This, for me, was the first example in this film that Britt Allcroft had no respect for the source material (although, to be fair, series 5 made it more obvious. This film was more blatant about it). No matter which universe this story was set in, Sodor has always been an island off the coast of England, near the Isle of Man. Also, what does he mean by "special universe"? Does it mean Sodor's on Earth and Shining Time is on Pluto? Because if that's the case, how could a railway connect the two? I mean Misty Island has a tunnel that connects it to Sodor, and while it is really dangerous due to the carbon monoxide produced by the coal powered steam engines, it still makes some sort of sense. That said, him using magic to get to Sodor can be explained since Timmy can go anywhere with magic with his fairies in The Fairly OddParents.

Second, there's Lady's back story, which is extremely convoluted. Apparently, her being alive affects the whole universe. Fair enough. Except the TV series had never acknowledged that she existed before then, and the only time she was seen after, her only defining trait, which was established here, was completely ignored! Heck, even though I know little about Shining Time Station, I do know that she was never mentioned there, either! Not only that, but despite the fact that she's on the anthropomorphic locomotive's equivalent of life support, Sodor carries on as normal! You'd think that the engines would get a bit weaker somehow! Whether they began losing the ability to talk or just became weaker physically. It would have made sense (to a degree) and it would have made the claim that Sodor and Shining Time are in the same universe, being linked my a mythical engine, much stronger.

While I'm on the subject, why was Sodor even necessary to the plot? The location of the clue to the source of the gold dust was completely stupid and the coal doesn't all come from Sodor! Yeah, I'm sure the island has a colliery or two, but I'd imagine that most of it was imported! So the "special coal" (which, by the way, Henry meeds despite the fact that he shouldn't need any, even for boiler ache!) is pretty ridiculous.

And then there's Diesel 10. The only things that don't make him a clichéd Hollywood villain are the fact that he's a diesel (which makes him a clichéd Thomas and Friends villain) and his claw, which is given a name because... reasons. It has no face, it has no character, all it does is try and give a big scary claw a less scary feel, which is like giving a cute named spider to an arachnophobe. No matter what you do to the spider, they'll still feel scary to the person!

His cronies aren't much better, either. They're lazy in every sense of the word. Their models are 'Arry and Bert's with a different livery, their faces are identical when they're on screen (before you bring up Donald and Douglas and Bill and Ben, they may have had the same facial expressions between them, they always had a different face mask on to differentiate them when they were seen together) and they were the typical Hollywood goofy sidekicks. But they're nothing compared to...

Lady. I've already ranted on about her twice before, so I'll just leave links to my post on Lady as well as my top 10 worst characters. However, I've read recently that Lady was never intended to speak in the original version, so maybe giving her a voice in the final cut actually helped her popularity. Although, it still doesn't change the fact that, to me, she's a glorified plot device.

Back to the story, which is extremely confused. Yes, I'm well aware of the cuts demanded by the focus groups, but a) that doesn't excuse you from putting as little effort as possible into making the new story coherent and b) it doesn't explain why Britt was trying to up the target audience of the show prior to, and culminating with, this. After four series, the series should have found its identity, so it makes no sense! Sure, The Railway Series had a tone change midway through, but it was reflecting on the state of the railways, so it made more sense. From series 5 onwards, the change was there for no other reason than to pander to little boys with action scenes, loads of crashes and explosions.

Also, the audience you're trying to aim the film at would have typically grown out of Thomas by that point in life so they'd be disinterested in it. But even trying to up the age range doesn't make sense since there's the magic gold dust element was there to try and satisfy young kids, as was giving names to big, scary objects! Seriously, if you think the last two paragraphs are confused, it's nothing compared to the film itself!

There have been many fingers pointed to focus groups for the film failing so miserably, but I'm not one of those people. Sure, they may have had an influence on the edits, but they never forced Britt Allcroft to do anything! If she was so confident in the film's original cut, why didn't she just release it? If she couldn't, why didn't she put more effort into making a coherent story? It's not like the focus groups blackmailed her to make a terrible film!

But on the whole though, I just hate what this movie represents. It, for me, showed that Britt Allcroft didn't care about Thomas the Tank Engine or the world that she inherited. I've already brought up the change in geographical location and how Sodor is relatively pointless to the story, but the fact that everything about it is American (apart from the term "truck") is, quite frankly, an insult. I watched an episode of Top Gear a few days ago and even they recognise Thomas as a British icon more than Britt Allcroft did here! The only thing I didn't really mind was hearing Sir Topham Hatt since that's actually his name and it is quite nice to have a breather from the constant references to "the Fat Controller".

Moving on to the model sets. Like I said in the previous review, most of them are just thrown together haphazardly. Nothing has any sort of coherence to it. There's no real mapping to any of them. They just thought "We'll put these things there and be done with it".

But for me, the worst thing about the models was (and this is going to sound petty to most, but bear with me) the engines lacking crews. Rule number one for Thomas and Friends was that engines always had crews! Going against the structure of a show is one indication that it's gone on too long, especially when the creator is the one bending the rules! I know their absence had no bearing on the plot, but like I said before, you cannot go against what's been established since the pilot!

Then there were the voice actors. To their credit, they did pretty well considering they were probably called up at such short notice, but I feel really bad for the original cast, Michael Angelis especially. He's always done a brilliant job with James and Percy's voices, so to replace him with someone so sub-par was disrespectful. I'm actually surprised that he returned to the show after that.

At least he did though, unlike John Bellis (Thomas) and Doug Lennox (original main antagonist). They were given an amazing opportunity, yet it was so cruelly taken away because Britt was felled by peer pressure. Who knows what could have happened had their roles actually made the final cut?

As for the actual acting, it was terrible. Alec Balwin's excitement felt extremely forced - almost like he was being Tasered, Peter Fonda looked like he was chronically depressed throughout, even when Lady was restored (he'd give Kristen Stewart a run for her money) and Mara Wilson just looked like she didn't want to be there. It's a shame this was the last major film she was associated with. The only character I can say I liked was C Junior, played by Michael E. Rodgers. While it was confusing as to what relation he was to Mr C., he was the only character to show any growth throughout the film. At the start (well, more near the middle, since that's when he was introduced), he was a clumsy goof who preferred to be at the beach, but by the end he accepted the burden of responsibility that he would inevitably have in the future. That said, even that felt rather wonky.

The visuals are... hit and miss. The panning shots look great, as do the atmospheric ones, but the character models looked extremely lazy. Yeah, I agree with the critics who point out the mouths not moving as a drawback. For a TV story that only has a narrator, it makes sense since the episodes are told like they're stories (not to mention the fact that TV budgets are much smaller than film budgets). This was a big screen adventure, and the static faces just don't work. You could make the argument that they kept them that way to "keep the feel of the show", but I think that excuse went out of the window with the inclusion of Shining Time Station and the lack of British influences!

The only thing I really enjoyed (other than C Junior) was the music. Hummie Mann's themes were absolutely beautiful, and they captured the atmosphere fantastically well. The only song I wasn't much for was Locomotion by Atomic Kitten. It sounded rather cheesy, but it was only heard on the soundtrack and during the end credits, so it wasn't too bad.

Final Thoughts
As a Thomas and Friends film, this simply does not work. Even disregarding the Railway Series, there are so many convolutions and contrivances that it just made it feel like Britt Allcroft was spitting on the Rev. Awdry's grave. Not to mention the fact that Sodor is barely featured and, actually, could have been cut completely with two edits.

The sad part is that this could have worked as an actual film. I'm serious. If the cuts hadn't been enforced and if Sodor hadn't felt shoehorned in, it could have been an ideal send off for Shining Time Station. Lady could have simply been the guardian of Shining Time, while Boomer wanted her dead for whatever reason, maybe out of spite for something Stone had done. I would watch that!

But as it stands, this just feels like a lie. The direct to DVD specials feel more like Thomas films than this. Even though the quality of them is... mixed, the producers still understand that they're creating an adventure about a little blue engine and his friends on the island of Sodor. This does not.

This leads on to the million dollar question: would I have preferred the director's cut? No. While, yes, the story would have been slightly stronger, the engines may have had British actors voicing them and there may have been a bit more involvement on Sodor, it still wouldn't have removed the convoluted set up and the fact that this is still a send off to Shining Time Station that they were trying to flog to a worldwide audience as a Thomas the Tank Engine film.

Friday, 23 January 2015

The Steam Team

I have to admit, I was never going to do a review like this, but after seeing a tweet from SteamTeam asking about what people thought of the concept, I felt rather inspired to make this, mainly because what I want to say can't be said in 140 characters. So, here are my thoughts on the Steam Team!

In 2009, a professor from the University of Alberta concluded in a study that Thomas and Friends consists of a hierarchical structure. On the one hand, you have to wonder "don't university professors have more important things to study?", but I've recently thought about whether this is true or not.

As far as The Railway Series goes, the answer is an emphatic "no". It's clear that each engine has their own roles to play on different parts of the island. To ensure there's no misbehaving, a manager is in charge to keep things in order. This isn't a "hierarchy", it's how a normal railway operates. Small engines are incapable of going long distances or pulling long, heavy trains that tender engines and large diesels can.

So that's it. Blog post over, right?

Nope. Because (and I think this is going to shock everyone) I believe that there's some truth to the professor's findings. But he's actually looking in the wrong place. Which brings me to... the Steam Team.

I'm going to say it right now: I hate the concept of the Steam Team. And no, it's not because it excluded Duck, Donald, Douglas and Oliver. It's because, I believe, it created the hierarchical structure that the professor found.

Think about it: all the characters it abandoned. All the starring roles going to Steam Team members. They were treated like they were the kings of the railway, while the other characters were left on the sidings or simply used as side characters.

And then there's the name: the Steam Team. Remember in my reviews during series 14-16 that portrayed the steam and diesel "rivalry" as nothing more than presenting racial undertones? To me, the Steam Team concept is flat out supportive of discriminating diesels, despite the fact that not all of them are bad. But the name of the group practically stated that diesels didn't deserve to be on the same level as steam engines. That goes beyond hierarchical. Hell, it goes beyond racism. What we saw with the diesels throughout the Sam Barlow era was sectarianism.

That is another reason why I really like the direction that the series is going. Yes, there are still episodes that include the main cast, but (apart from Thomas) none of them feel out of place any more. More characters are being given a chance in the spotlight with the Steam Team playing the supporting roles. The series feels more inclusive, like it did in the Railway Series and, heck, even the early TV series. Yet still, the Steam Team name lingers. Not only that, but diesels are being treated with a lot more respect. Yes, there's still a rivalry there, but that's all it is: a rivalry. They don't hate each other anymore, preferring to play the game of one-upmanship, which I really like.

Yes, the Steam Team name is good as a marketing ploy. But it just... doesn't feel right any more. I personally think that calling them the Really Useful Crew or Sodor's Mighty Heroes would be the solution to the problem. Heck, it may see sales rise. Who knows?

Final Thoughts
I know some fans will say that HiT and Sam Barlow had good intentions for downsizing the cast and giving it a fancy name, but the implications said name left behind leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

I've often said "never believe what academics and journalists say about a kid's show", but I'm starting to see things a bit differently now. I don't think their perspective should be ignored completely; rather, it should be given a bit more thought as to how valid their claims are. You never know what you'll discover if you do.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Hornby's Revival

Well, now that Dinos and Discoveries is behind us, time to look to the future! So here are my thoughts on the recent announcement that the Hornby range is returning this year!
The opinions in this blog post are SOLELY MY OWN. They do not reflect the opinions of the entire Thomas and Friends fanbase.

For the 70th anniversary of the Thomas & Friends franchise (I'll post an evaluation of the whole year in December), HiT are pulling out all the stops, with The Adventure Begins, a slight revamp of the Railway Series covers, as well as many events worldwide. But for me, the biggest surprise came from Hornby, who announced in  the latest Licensing Source Book that they would be announcing a brand new range!

What does this mean? I don't know. But I'm really looking forward to it as, unlike the majority of the fanbase, I love Hornby's models as the majority of them felt like you were controlling miniature version of the engines if they ever came to life (apart from Emily and Edward; they were really bad). But what would I like to see from this new range?
  • Return of Old Models - OK, this is a no-brainer. Hornby has created many models for the 30 years it's had the OO scale license here in the UK, so they could start by relaunching a few of them. If I had a preference as to who they'd bring back? Henry. His is the best model I've never owned, and I'd love to get him.
  • Original Characters - No, I don't mean them creating their own characters. I mean them creating characters that neither them or Bachmann have created before. There are many to choose from: Arthur, Neville, Daisy, BoCo, STANLEY (...sorry, my personal bias is showing), Den, etc.
  • Retooling of Existing Characters - Yes, there are many characters that they made that I didn't like. Edward and Emily, as I've already mentioned, Annie and Clarabel felt far too compressed, Toby's a tall garden shed on wheels and Bill and Ben look far too big, not to mention their faces are pretty much the same.
  • Narrow Gauge Models - This might be slightly out there since they'd need to make completely new toolings for every engine, which I'm not sure they'd be willing to do. But since they have an N gauge range, I'd love to see them make some Skarloey Railway engines.
  • Diecast Models - Curve ball! I feel that the Take-n-Play range is becoming rather unpopular due to Fisher Price constantly changing things. So this could be Hornby Hobbies' chance to give them a bit of competition so that they wake up and smell the coffee. Besides, if ERTL could create something fantastic using diecast metal, it would be interesting to see how Hornby would do. The only problem would be the gap they leave in the OO scale market.

Final Thoughts
I'm glad that Hornby are bringing back their Thomas range. Here's hoping they stick around for many years to come, and if it does end eventually, I'm hoping they go out with more of a bang than the old range did.

DVD Review: Dinos and Discoveries

To finish this marathon of reviews, here are my thoughts on the Dinos and Discoveries DVD!

As you've seen this week, I've been posting my thoughts on the episodes included in this DVD. They are:
  1. Marion and the Dinosaurs
  2. Millie and the Volcano
  3. Timothy and the Rainbow Truck
  4. Samson At Your Service
  5. Emily Saves the World
  6. Samson Sent for Scrap
Since I've already reviewed the episodes already, and I'll probably expand on some of them in my series 18 overview, I won't go deeper into any of them here. All I'll say here is that they're a real mixed bag, and even the good ones are heavily flawed. That said, since this is another DVD where all the episodes has never been seen on TV, it does raise the value of it a bit.

Bonus Features
The features here are the usual variety of segments.

Mr Perkins' Postcard focuses on shunting. It's a really good segment, and a bit different than the ones that just told us about a specific location. The only nitpick I have is that Thomas only shunts rarely these days since he has a branch line to run.

His Storytime segment actually surprised me a bit. A few of the segments before this had been tweaked to add TV elements (engine repaints and Percy and the Trousers was elongated), but this was left completely unaltered.

Seeing the original illustrations was lovely, and I also liked Loraine Marshall's artwork. It really captures Dalby's style brilliantly. It's also a nice little coincidence that this story was told at the start of the franchise's 70th anniversary.

Who's That Engine? featured Gordon. Again, the specially shot animation was great, although it was weird that he was pulling Express Coaches at one point, then red ones after his reveal. But that's nothing compared to the inclusion of Bust My Buffers! as the story they highlighted. Why did they highlight it? There are so many unfortunate implications surrounding it, not to mention they still called the buffer beam a "buffer"! Yeah, it wasn't the best choice...

The Earl's Quiz was the standard fare, using Kevin's Cranky Friend and Thomas and the Runaway Kite as the question sources. It's the standard fare really. A nice little segment for kids. Calling All Engines featured Diesel and Caitlin. Again, it's the standard fare, really.

What did come as a surprise was a trailer for a brand new 44 minute special called The Adventure Begins, which will take viewers back to the early days of Sodor, including authentic liveries for Thomas and James! I've already left my thoughts on it, so for now, I'll say that it looks fantastic and I'm really looking forward to what the team can pull off.

On the whole, everything look very crisp and smooth, as you'd expect from a Thomas and Friends DVD. Yes, there are a couple of animation errors within episodes, but they're not completely off-putting.

The RRP for this DVD is £12.99, as usual. Again, if you do a bit of shopping around you can get it at a much lower price. The lowest come courtesy of Asda and HMV, who are selling it for £6 and £5.99 respectively.

Final Thoughts
I feel rather torn about this DVD. While I don't think the episodes are that high of a quality, they are adequate enough to feel like value for money if you get it for the cheaper price tags that HMV and Asda are offering. Also, the fact that these episodes are exclusive to DVD raises the value higher, possibly more than the previous release. So yeah, I would recommend this, but I wouldn't expect the same quality storytelling that was on show in the series 18 episodes that aired on TV.