Friday, 25 March 2016

Bubbling Boilers

So, HiT have collaborated with a 4D entertainment studio called SimEx-Iwerks to create something special for 4D cinemas in, at least, the UK and US. And it's been called... Bubbling Boilers... OK. Anyway, SimEx have released a 2D version on their Vimeo Pro account, so I thought I'd give it a look over.

This is basically a tale of two elements: the story and the animation.

Let's be frank here, the story sucks. And I'm rather glad, for its sake, that this isn't made for TV otherwise it would have been thoroughly destroyed without mercy. While I will tear this apart... I do feel kind of guilty as this is an experimental project away from the actual show.

For all intents and purposes, this conflict should not happen. At all. Even if Thomas' sandboxes were empty (this is never explained, by the way), the fact that a steam engine is running on bubble liquid is farcical.

The mine scene was also pretty bad. Discounting the fact that the trucks probably wouldn't have rolled that far, it goes on for such a long time that it ends up being a bit dull. Also, where was this mine? Regardless of whether it's the one under Ulfstead Castle or near Great Waterton, it's inexplicably grown (for no other reason than to add more action) since either were last seen.

I also got major Great Discovery flashbacks with the shot at the waterfall. At least with the 4D, this has more of a purpose, but it's still ridiculous.

And that's not to mention the fact that Thomas manages to move immediately after being put back on the track. It happened in series 19, and it was rather annoying there as well. But with the bubbly 4D the shot will create, at least it makes sense here.

That said, there were a few tidbits I liked. Cranky being able to communicate with his seagull friend (which could be similar to the one from Percy's New Friends). It's an interesting trait that, even in the episode I mentioned, was never really focused on. It'll make Cranky a lot more interesting as a character if they decide to expand upon it, rather than just being a grump with no other traits going for him.

It was also nice that the main railway was referenced as the North Western again, and I'm hoping that this becomes frequent from series 20. It's not a big thing, but it makes it feel more real. Also, the shot above with Gordon really interests me. I'd love to see the express make it to Barrow soon.

And then there's this special's biggest strength: the animation is the best of the franchise so far. As a project that relies on the strength of its visuals in order to make the 4D effects feel real, this does an absolutely excellent job of that.

Final Thoughts
This feels a lot like Rusty and the Boulder and Thomas the Jet Engine: the story is utterly terrible, but it's just so much fun to watch that it's rather likeable in some way. The only reason I don't like those episodes as much is that they're part of the actual series and this is just a side project. I do wish that the story was better, but I hope this does well.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

DVD Reviews: Start Your Engines!

The first of two DVDs featuring never seen on TV episodes from series 19 arrived last Monday, and since I've reviewed the episodes (finally), time to get to the DVD itself!

This release includes six new episodes:
  1. Two Wheels Good
  2. Reds vs Blues
  3. Slow Stephen
  4. The Little Engine Who Raced Ahead
  5. Best Engine Ever
  6. Philip to the Rescue
Like last year's exclusive release, this one has a real mixed bag. However, on the whole, I feel like this is the weaker of the two. Regardless of how mixed Dinos and Discoveries was, at least each episode sticks with the theme (or, at least, the majority do). This one doesn't. In fact, only two have a natural focus (and even then, one of those only had that focus in the second half) on the supposed theme of the DVD, while two had the theme shoehorned in.

I don't mind yearly releases like these having a theme. Heck, this whole year revolves around a "racing" theme. But when you have one with such restrictive story potential to the point where barely a third of the main content on a DVD supposedly promoting said theme has nothing to do with it, that's where my issue lies.

Bonus Features
This release has a combination of recurring segments and some brand new ones.

Really Useful Engines featured Bill, Ben and Marion this time around. They were really good descriptions of some great characters. There's little else I can say, really.

There was an abundance of The Earl's Quizzes, focusing on The Lost Puff, Percy's Parcel, Pop Goes Thomas, Percy's Lucky Day and colours. They were all OK; they were challenging enough for children, but I have a weird feeling that, since there were so many of these on one release, they could be replaced in the future. If so, that would be a shame as, although I'm not too keen on them, they were a good, fun way to test a child's memory.

Two new segments made their d├ębut on this release; the first of which being The Fat Controller's Tales, in which the North Western Railway's manager tells a story about a certain character. It's a bit like Mr Perkins Story Time, only the focus is on TV series episodes, not Railway Series stories. This one focus on Cranky, and his conflict in Kevin's Cranky Friend. It was a nice telling of a good episode.

And then, there came Landmarks of Sodor, which is like Mr Perkins' Postcards only in the style of an old documentary, and it's absolutely fantastic. These are my favourite segments that the team have done. This one focused on Whiff's Waste Dump and the scrayard, and they're both explained really well.

There was also a trailer for this year's special, The Great Race. I'm really uninterested in this one. If descriptions are anything to go by, it'll be a mish mash of previous concepts, 12 new characters for kids to wrap their heads around and a real, grand appearance for the Flying Scotsman.

The animation in this release is extremely high quality. With a new intro, Roll Call and end credit sequence, they haven't looked better than this. However, the fact that the intro and end sequences follow every episode, it just doesn't flow that well. It's more forgiveable with complete series releases as they don't feel like they're meant to be watched in their entirety in one sitting, but these do, so hearing the same song over again can get annoying.

Not only that, but the visuals for the segments (minus the trailer for The Great Race) are a bit smaller than the episodes, leaving a small black box on the outside. It feels rather odd, and makes them seem out of place when watching the DVD in one go.

The RRP for this DVD is £9.99. Most retailers sell it at £7.99, but Asda are selling it at £6. If you wish to get these episodes in HD, iTunes is offering the episodes (not the bonus features) for £7.99.

Final Thoughts
Even though the theme of the DVD wasn't followed at all for the most part, it's still a good release set at a good price (if you can get it for the best price to suit you). The episode quality is mixed, but the good episodes are probably some of the best of the show. I do recommend it, however, solely because they're DVD exclusive episodes. For now, at least.

Series 19: Philip to the Rescue

And the marathon of reviews comes to a close with my thoughts on the final episode from Start Your Engines!, and the final one for some time, Philip to the Rescue!

Well, Philip, we meet again. Considering your last episode was a failure, I was not looking forward to your next outing. But I was also hoping that my concerns would be misplaced.

They weren't. In fact, they were right on the money. This is literally The Little Engine Who Raced Ahead all over again. Or, at least, the first part is. The only difference is that no one is in the right here. James should have known not to let Philip get to him, and Philip should have known (had he actually been taught) not to be so overbearing. And guess what? Philip comes out on top. Again. And that's despite the fact that he caused the conflict in the first place!

While the flashback scene is nice, it just shows viewers that the half of Philip's previous episode before the race is (like I said in that review) pointless. Also, was this really necessary either? These are direct to DVD episodes (for now), and they're literally 10 minutes apart. Unless they tried to make Philip's introduction a half baked two parter..?

One thing I did like though was the accident. The fact they had James fall (as soon as Philip got there, of course) was very surprising and the detail thrown into it was fantastic. I also liked that they showed the phone call between the guard and the Fat Controller; it felt rather natural. Although, it's really tarnished by the fact that, had Philip not gotten to James, the thing wouldn't have happened in the first place! So the whole thing, in the grand scheme of the episode, is pointless.

That said, the throwback to Thomas' story was great. It again shows how genuine Thomas and Edward's friendship is and Thomas' face was priceless.

As well as that, the story feels a lot better paced here. It feels as though they had a much clearer vision as to how it would go and, even though I don't think it was great, none of it really felt wasted.

Fan Reaction

Final Thoughts
This episode is terrible. The two main characters aren't in the right, so I can't really root for either of them to succeed. Philip still isn't reprimanded for his behaviour, which is worse here as he actually causes an accident, and when Edward tries, he just brushes it off and everyone else laughs about it.

It's lucky that this episode has a better flowing story, some good drama and a couple of heart-warming moments, otherwise the score could've been far, far worse than it is.

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Series 19: Best Engine Ever

Here are my thoughts on the penultimate episode of Start Your Engines!, Best Engine Ever!

You know those episodes that a show produces that are basically a direct response to critics? Well, I see this one as a direct response to those who say the show is "sexist". These episodes usually end up being terribly misguided, leading to an extremely flawed argument from producers and writers who either can't, or refuse to, see where the complaints are coming from (see several episodes from Teen Titans Go!). This one, however?

I love it. It's an episode that actually feels like a natural story rather than one that's trying to stick it to the critics who say the show is "sexist". It's also an excellent way to display how great Thomas' female cast, for its size, truly is. I've always believed in quality over quantity when it comes to female characters being featured in shows aimed at boys and men - and vice versa - and this is a prime example as to why.

But forget all of that, this is the biggest talking point: Streamlined Emily. I really don't care about it. If anything, I really like it. Yeah, she does look weird, especially since her face sticks out that far, but it's a great way to show how much her insecurities are getting to her and how much she really wants to be like Caitlin, unlike in an episode like Dream On which sees Thomas literally trying to be like Spencer step by step.

Moving on, the tension when they run down the hill at Ulfstead is fantastic. I'm glad that the animators have realised that they don't need to lean the characters to get as much suspense from the scene as possible; the right reactions and camera angles work perfectly well, too. The tension does drop slightly when they reach the grassy area, but that's really a nitpick.

One quote I picked up on was James saying he was going to Arlesburgh. Considering this was set before Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure (apparently), and he was seen at the construction yard in one shot, could this quote have been foreshadowing it?

Also, as random as Marion's appearance was (and it really was), I still really liked it. Her speech was really uplifting, even though it did little to lift Emily's mood.

The only real issue the episode has is that Connor's appearance is rather pointless. It's only really there to appease the racing theme of the DVD and this year, which is a shame.

Fan Reaction

Final Thoughts
The moral's been done, but it's still really relevant. The characters are fantastic, there's quite a bit of tension and there's a ton of heart. It's, for me, near perfect. If Connor had been cut and they'd have just focused on Caitlin's speed and streamlining rather than racing, I think it would've been Andrew's best episode. Which is funny considering it comes after his worst..!

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Series 19: The Little Engine Who Raced Ahead

Here are my thoughts on the fourth episode of Start Your Engines!, The Little Engine Who Raced Ahead! (that's a mouthful of a title..!)

...oh dear. I really wanted to like Philip. In the trailer for the DVD, he seemed like a charming character with... not necessarily a soothing voice, but one that seemed to suit. Also, his design looked fantastic.

While I do still like his design and voice, his personality really grated on me by the end of this episode, and his second one didn't really help matters. It feels like Andrew wanted to introduce Philip in a similar way to Thomas in The Adventure Begins. The problem is that I don't think he properly understood what made Thomas' introduction so great. Either that, or he intentionally went in this direction to make the diesel boxcab seem different.

My main problem stems from Philip feeling like a child... from this generation. This being a generation where you can barely even talk to a child, let alone reprimand them, without someone saying that you're abusing them. Philip gets literally zero consequences for the problems he causes or for annoying other characters. Sure, the Fat Controller tells him off for going against safety, which is fine, but no one calls him out for bugging Gordon constantly. If anything, the others just play along with his delusions, which is one of the worst things you can do when it comes to character development!

Thomas' story with Gordon worked really well as the tank engine constantly teased him until Gordon managed to get his own back, showing what he's truly capable of and showing Thomas that he wasn't all that he thought he was and to be more careful around Gordon in future. What does Philip's story teach us? That you can be as annoying as you want and get away with it? Just... no.

Also, the end of the episode feels really abrupt. It genuinely feels like the first half could have been replaced with the second, and the second could have been re-worked to feature Gordon getting his own back. But instead, he gets no such treatment. He's just seen as a big baby just because someone was constantly bugging him, and he's the character that I feel the most sympathy for by the end of it.

It's rather telling that the best part of the episode is the part that's the most pointless. Granted, it shows how hard Philip works, and it shows what he can do when he concentrates (and some of his reactions do have a childlike charm to them), but they add little to the overall story. They could have been cut entirely, and the plot would have remained the same.

Fan Reaction

Final Thoughts
Considering he wrote Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure and The Adventure Begins at a similar time series 19 was produced, I really wouldn't have been that bothered if Andrew had just skipped this series and let the rest of the team handle it. And this is a prime example as to why. It just feels like little effort was put in to make Philip redeemable or give him any sort of development, and the story is all over the place to the point where it just... ends. It's a bad episode, through and through.

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Monday, 21 March 2016

Series 19: Slow Stephen

Here are my thoughts on the third episode of Start Your Engines!, Slow Stephen!

Helen Farrall, you've done it again!

I've enjoyed all of Helen's episodes this series, some more than others, but this and Toad & the Whale are some of my favourites of the entire show. Heck, if it wasn't for the rules I placed on my top 10 favourite episodes list, this would be number two, and Edward's Exploit would be pushed down to third place (if I actually updated it..!).

She has already shown that she has an excellent grasp of each character and how they should be, whether they be old ones like Thomas, Annie and Clarabel or new ones like Stephen.

She also knows how to build some excellent tension for a show aimed at such a young age group. Here, for example, the scenes at the bridge were executed brilliantly. Some could say it falls apart a bit too easily, but it's a kids show, so it can easily be forgiven.

Gordon's role here was brilliant, too. He always seems to have a good dynamic with Stephen, so it was nice to see them sharing some of the spotlight again. Also, the ending produced an excellent moment of catharsis.

Speaking of the ending, the climax was beautifully done. Stephen's courage and determination was second to none, and Gordon's "you saved me and my passengers" line really showed how bad the situation could have been. It's another piece of gutsy writing from a show that barely went there in the seasonal rot era (the closest I can think of was Skarloey almost losing his cab in Blue Mountain Mystery).

The one thing I find sad, though, is that Porter has more of a role in an episode that he has little to do with (and all he does is point out the obvious), yet the one episode that could have used him didn't. Yes, I'm still disappointed with Salty All at Sea, and will continue to be until the end of time. Or until I stop being a Thomas fan, whichever comes first.

Fan Reaction

Final Thoughts
This is another superb effort by Helen Farrall. It's a tense, dramatic story that plays out really well and has some fantastic characterisation, voice acting and animation. There's little else to say, I'm just loving her work so far and I hope she stays for the foreseeable future!

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)