Friday, 27 July 2018

Worst to Best: Films and Specials

With the UK cinematic release, and my review, of Big World! Big Adventures! this week, I thought I'd take a look back at all the films and specials created since the show's inception and see where I'd rank them all.

Like the fans who have done a list like this on Twitter, I'll be focusing on the projects that Gullane/HiT/Mattel have marketed as movies or special features. That means that Bubbling Boilers isn't being counted. It also means there's 14 to get through. So let's get stuck in!

Worst: Day of the Diesels (-3/10 - Terrible)
You thought the worst would be the first ever film, right? While I've railed against that film constantly ever since the Thomas fanbase gained a larger online presence, I genuinely think this is the worst film the franchise has ever produced. Because it feels like a feature length episode in all the wrong ways. Seriously, it follows every single plot structure from series 13-16 beat for beat.

But that's not all that's wrong with this. The tone is depressingly boring (which further exacerbates the repetitive nature of the story), it's yet another steam vs diesel story (only with strong racist overtones), the ending feels unearned, Diesel 10 is far too menacing (I honestly prefer hammy, over the top Diesel 10, especially with his design) and the main motivation for Percy siding with the diesels is flat out copied from a far better special.

You could say that one positive is that another engine (Percy) gets the spotlight, but... well, so did a future special, and that was far superior. Also, if you looked at the DVD box art, you'd think that Thomas was the star of it. You'd also think that Mavis and Salty had major roles too, but... they don't.

Overall, this is the absolute worst movie because there's absolutely nothing to gain from it. Heck, you could listen to the song that accompanied the film, and not only would you get a more satisfying experience than watching the movie, but you'd have actually heard the whole thing play out its near 3 minute run time. So just listen to that rather than watch the movie.

13. Thomas & the Magic Railroad (-3/10 - Terrible)
Yeah, yeah. I've explained why I hate this film so often that it's probably become a meme at this point. But honestly? Some bits are so entertaining (pretty much any time Diesel 10's on screen, some of the really hammy acting) that I can't justify to myself that this is the absolute worst, even if I want to believe it.

Sure, Day of the Diesels has the more complete, coherent story. But when it's as terrible as it turned out to be, I'd rather a nonsensical plot that actually has some entertainment value. Also, yeah, this is the best acted and funniest Diesel 10 there's ever been. In hindsight, I shouldn't have been as harsh on him as I was.

12. The Great Race (2/10 - Bad) 
This had so many amazing sub-plots. Gordon's rivalry with his brother, Flying Scotsman. Philip and Vinnie's bullying story. Diesel being the funniest, yet most devious, he's ever been. And what was the main plot they decided to go with?

Thomas having self confidence issues and Ashima trying to set him straight. Or, to put it another way, the love child of Dream On and Tale of the Brave.

This was the first special I was truly disappointed by as I knew it could've been so much more than it was. If they'd have just focused on Gordon's sub-plot, I feel they could've gotten more character development and a far better, more interesting conflict. Heck, they probably could've tied that in with Gordon wanting to be streamlined. Sure, it probably would've gone down the "confidence issues" route the actual film went down, but it would've made a lot more sense.

Instead, we got something that ended up being far less interesting and so much potential that was left in the creative department.

11. Big World! Big Adventures! (3/10 - Bad)
Honestly, this one hurts to put as low as I have. But as good as some of the lessons are, as fantastic as some of the character interactions are, that lack of story kneecaps it immensely.

I won't go into too much detail as I've only recently reviewed it. But needless to say Nia's the best character in it because she's actually a character that happens to be female rather than being female spouting "I don't need no man" cliches that so many female characters seem to be saying these days.

10. Misty Island Rescue (3/10 - Bad)
This one has the opposite problems that Big World! has; terrible themes and really bad characters (and atrocious dialogue), but a really good story.

Because of that, it was tough to decide which was the better of the two. But I think this is better (slightly) because the story has higher stakes, actual tension and an actual flow to it throughout its run time. Also, that post credits scene is still fantastic. It didn't really lead to anything good, but it left you intrigued as to what Diesel 10 was planning.

9. Calling All Engines! (5/10 - Average)
If Day of the Diesels is a feature length episode done wrong, this is one done right. Mostly. I don't mind the learning segments that much, and I can understand why they were included. But I'm glad that no other special has any and I feel that the deleted scenes could've replaced them and nothing would change.

Overall, this was a steam vs diesel plot done right. And it's honestly where the rivalry should have ended, rather than being dragged on and on, being used as a crutch when the writers have no other ideas. It's also great that they actually show that not all diesels are bad, as Mavis helps Thomas try and sort the problem.

The only real issues are that the story, while good, is also unremarkable, the climax with Thomas, Diesel 10 and George feels tacked on solely to have Diesel 10's appearance have a point and (not an issue with the actual special, but still a shame) Daisy's appearance is never built on. Fans had to wait 10 years, a change to CGI and a change of production studio, for her to do anything.

Honestly, I can never hate this special. It was released, and I saw it, at a time where the staff at my school were hell bent on getting me to distance myself from the franchise (because why should schools celebrate individuality when they have targets to meet, am I right?) and this was the major factor that kept me attached to it. And while my liking of it has waned since I first reviewed it 7 years ago (I've since reverted the review to a draft state; I may re-review it soon), I still think it's alright. I'd go so far as to say it's slightly underrated, even if I understand that it's not everyone's cup of tea.

8. Hero of the Rails (6/10 - Average)
While I think Calling All Engines! is underrated, I think this is overrated. The story is fine, and it does a decent job of making Hiro seem sympathetic, I feel they go a bit too far at times, passing the line from sympathetic to annoying.

Not only that, but the dialogue is really bad at times. Not as bad as Misty Island Rescue, but it's bad enough to detract from the overall experience. Also, the ending was completely devalued since Hiro's been seen so often on Sodor since then (I hope Thomas goes to Japan in the future so we can see Hiro in his homeland).

That said, I really liked the story, I like that the main cast actually came together and worked as a team to help Hiro, I like the theme and lessons and I liked that Spencer was the main antagonist rather than a diesel (even if the turn came from nowhere).

It's an OK film overall, but definitely could have been better.

7. Journey Beyond Sodor (7/10 - Good)
Talk about an OK film made so much better with its theme and characters. Granted, Frankie's motivations could have been a lot clearer, but the new cast of characters here are far better overall than any other film so far (I'd have said it was BWBA, but we don't really get much time with any of the new characters besides Nia and Ace).

Honestly though, the film's fortunes really turn when Thomas sings I Want to Go Home. While I personally think Hottest Place in Town is better, that song is the one that makes you really care for Thomas as, up to that point, he was really selfish and - deservedly - paid the price for it.

Also, I still love Theo. He's the most precious little cinnamon roll and deserves so much more attention than he's gotten.

But that's all I can really say. My opinions on it are still pretty similar to how they were when I wrote the review last year. It's an enjoyable enough adventure with a really strong lesson.

6. The Great Discovery (7/10 - Good)
My love for this has waned a bit over the years, but I still really like it. I think the problem this has had is one that's not really this special's fault: current specials just have better writing (for the most part) and stronger characters. Case in point: Ryan is a far better realised version of Stanley (even if I like both and like writing for both).

Another issue this has is that it's stuffed with so many characters that do absolutely nothing. I get why: it was the last project to only use the models, so they wanted to use as many as they possibly could. But I'd have  much preferred a smaller cast where every character has purpose.

The other thing that puts me off is the narration. Don't get me wrong, the fact it's narrated by Pierce Brosnan makes it feel even more special since the others (except BWBA which removed the narrator's role entirely) were narrated by Michael Angelis and, later, Mark Moraghan. But it felt like he was narrating a bedtime story too much. I think, for a project like this, it would've benefited more from a bit more enthusiasm.

Other than that though, this was a really good special. It had a good dynamic between Thomas and Stanley, the story was fairly solid and the theme was decent as well. Also, Thomas, You're the Leader was an excellent way to end it.

5. King of the Railway (8/10 - Good)
OK, now we've reached the big guns. Ordering these five was difficult, but I'm satisfied with the order. And this is what I've chosen to be number 5.

It's genuinely impressive that they managed to create a story that ended up branching off into different directions while still managing to tie itself together really well. It's why I'm really disappointed with BWBA, as this managed to do all of that in an hour yet they barely told one story (and left one character dynamic completely open ended) with 20 extra minutes.

Not only that, but they added so much world building and lore to the show and it didn't feel out of place whatsoever. They tied it into the story really well, and it led to a really fun adventure.

The only real negative is that Stephen and the Earl were the only new characters that got a good amount of screen time and a solid personality. Millie, Connor and Caitlin are just... there.

Overall, this was a really strong solo debut for Andrew Brenner. But his previous contribution is just that little bit better.

4. Blue Mountain Mystery (8/10 - Good)
It's difficult to pinpoint who made this special as good as it was, or how much of the original script that Andrew Brenner edited. But it was definitely the best special ever made up to that point.

Sure, Luke being the "mysterious engine" could have been seen from a mile away thanks to the marketing spoiling it. But the way the whole mystery played out on screen was fantastic. And the twist with Victor was really unexpected. It was also nice that they added more to a character that had been around for a few years.

Another nitpick is with Rheneas being painted yellow. It didn't look that great and it was really pointless in the long run. As much as it tied his "I want a repaint" sub-plot up, it felt like it was only done to sell toys. In fairness, it makes sense that they didn't use Duncan since the Talyllyn's Douglas was being repaired when Nitrogen went to the railway for research. But it's still a bit of a shame.

Also, I still think Paxton should've been introduced here. He had more of a point, more of a character and it felt like he belong in it far more than he did in Day of the Diesels.

Overall, this is the only Nitrogen special that still holds up. It's a well written mystery with great characters and it was a fantastic way to bring back the narrow gauge engines (unlike series 16..!).

3. Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure (9/10 - Great)
Oh boy...

Ever since this film came out, I've been torn about whether this or the actual number two should have taken that spot. But after so much deliberation, I feel like this is the best positioning for the two.

They're both good in their own ways. This has much better music and songs, it has far more action and drama, it feels like the only special so far that's truly belonged on the big screen and it had a really fun sub-plot with Marion, the small engines and the two Olivers. Also, Sailor John was a fantastic villain and Skiff was a really sympathetic character.

The only real issue? Thomas and Ryan's dynamic feels far too much like Thomas and Stanley's. Thankfully, Ryan has been given a more defined character now, but here he was a generic, happy go lucky character like Stanley.

Also, and this is going to sound slightly controversial... all the action makes it feel... less like a Thomas movie and more like an action movie with Thomas character. It kind of lacks some of the charm and heart that the show's known for. It's not something that turns me off completely like it did with Magic Railroad as this is a fantastically written story. But it's because of this that I feel that number 3 is the best spot for it.

2. Tale of the Brave (9/10 - Great)
Out of all of the 60+ minute films/specials (whatever you want to call them), this is the best one... just. Why? Because it feels like a Thomas & Friends film more than any other. Is it a perfect story? No. Is it the most action packed? No. But what it has is what the franchise should be known for: heart, charm and bags of character.

And even if the story isn't perfect, it's still great. It removes an aspect of Percy's character that really wasn't necessary (until Three Steam Engines Gruff at least) and his dynamic with Gator was simply amazing. Seriously, it was so great that the ending where the visitor leaves was the most emotional of the entire franchise (for a year at least). Even now, I get a bit emotional when watching it. It's such a good dynamic that they tried copying it two years later. And failed.

Also, James as the antagonist was great. It didn't feel out of character or out of place, he fit the role brilliantly and he genuinely felt remorse in the end. He's definitely one of the better antagonists of the franchise.

I could honestly gush about this special for days. But all I'll say is that it's, by far, the most underrated film of the franchise. And the only reason why, I think, is because it focuses on telling a good story rather than adding lore like King of the Railway or being an orgy of action like Lost Treasure. Maybe it'll get the recognition it deserves some day, but all I know is that I'll always love it and will always sing its praises.

Also, the song Tale of the Brave is one of the best of the franchise, and the full version should've been released on streaming services.
Best: The Adventure Begins (10/10 - Great)
Could it be anything else?

Yes, it could be considered 40 minutes of fan service. But I tell you what, when the story is this good, I don't mind it feeling fan servicy-y (it's when it overshadows the story when it becomes a problem).

This is, to be blunt, the best adaptation to ever exist from any era of the show. It has the perfect mix of emulating the existing material and Andrew's own interpretations of Thomas' story. It develops Thomas fantastically well, and the ending is still best of any project in the franchise. Even though Thomas' branch still doesn't get much attention, and Thomas is seen everywhere, that ending still brings a tear to the eye solely because of how triumphant it is.

Also, this has Edward's best role since 1998. No joke, no hyperbole. He felt like the old, wise, patient guardian that he truly should be. And if taking him out of the main cast and putting him with Philip means we get more of that, I'll happily take it.

On the whole, this (and Lost Treasure) was an excellent way to celebrate the franchise's 70th anniversary. I'd go so far as to say this is the definitive version of Thomas' story. It's just incredible, and absolutely deserves the title of best Thomas & Friends special ever produced.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Big World! Big Adventures!: The Movie

It's been a long road to get to this point. So much fan vitriol, so many press releases, all the draft animation has all finally culminated with the release of the first of the major projects under the Big World! Big Adventures! umbrella this year; the movie itself.

And... it's not that good, to be honest. The sad thing is that's... pretty much all I can really say about it. Not due to the risk of spoilers, but because the film itself gives me so little to talk about.

The film allows Thomas to see the world, and when this was made known in the trailer, I posed the question: "OK, what now?". As it turned out, very little. The story becomes non-existent as soon as Thomas reaches Africa. Sure, Thomas tries to keep up with Ace (although why he'd want to after the car turned against him the second his rally friends were in the picture, I don't know), and then there's conflict between him and Nia, and then there's the Fat Controller looking for Thomas. But that's literally it.

There are absolutely zero stakes here as there's really nothing to obtain or lose. And the only time Thomas is in any real danger is when Ace leads him on when they near San Francisco. Well, Nia nearly dies due to a snowdrift and... admittedly, that was the one time I really cared because Nia is an absolute delight. She's the best character of the film solely due to how likeable and jolly she is.

The other thing I really liked is how Nia and Ace are like two sides of the friendship coin. Ace is pretty much the idea of what a friendship is, offering words of support but only being there when it's convenient for them. Meanwhile, Nia is an actual friend: someone you have disagreements with but is there when you need practical assistance as well as emotional support. It's genuinely some of Andrew Brenner's best character work ever, and was definitely the bright spot in an otherwise forgettable work. Seriously, if you hate Nia, you either hate positive characters or you're a racist. Although, this is the Thomas fanbase, so both are likely..!

The one issue is that Thomas and Ace's conflict is never resolved. There's never a moment of realisation for Thomas that Ace was a negative influence. The worst thing is that there was a scene on the way to the Utah salt flats that it would've fit in brilliantly. Instead, we get a quiet moment where we transition to the next day when they're rescued. It would've provided some great character growth for Thomas and would have made Ace realise that he needed to change his way.

I've heard some fans saying "maybe [certain aspects] will be explored in series 22", to which I say they had 80 minutes to work with here! If they can't tie everything up in that amount of time, they're either poor storytellers or lazy ones. This isn't a Toad's Bright Idea scenario where an episode took place within a special. They didn't need to do that since Tale of the Brave told a complete story as it was. They wanted to in order to develop Gator and tell another interesting story within that time frame.

Speaking of Ace, the controversial scene in Free and Easy with Carlos was cut. As much as I objected to the outrage of it, I can understand why it was removed in the final cut. Honestly, I don't get why it was even included having watched the special. It added nothing to the story or song it was in, and its omission actually helps the flow of the song.

Another thing I disliked was the pacing. For the most part, it was fine. I like how it went straight in to the story, and the first two acts flowed really well. Then the third one came along and... well, 6 minutes after Nia's rescue, the special came to an abrupt halt and the credits rolled. Europe and the countries within it were just skipped, only depicted as some basic visuals to accompany the We're Friends song, Nia revealed she was homeless and Thomas offered to let her stay (which is a wonderful theme about offering a hand to those who need it) and they skipped from the Vicarstown bridge to Knapford. They didn't even bring the Far Controller home. It all felt really rushed to me.

And now let's talk about the songs. Sometimes You Make A Friend is, by far, the best song of the bunch. The others are either mediocre or bad. The reason the one I mentioned is so beautiful is because it's so heartfelt and it actually fits with the minimal story threads the film has. Thomas knows he's screwed up with Nia and he wants to put things right. Plus, anything with a ballad-y tone is a weakness for me.

Free and Easy tries so much to ape something like Hakuna Matata it's actually sad and the others just feel really preachy and just plain bland.

The animation has been the biggest sticking point for many fans since the stuff we'd seen up to this point was... mediocre. Happily, the final version is as excellent as it always has been. Although a lot of the assets used for the other countries were reused from pre-existing renders to save on time and cost. If that bothers you, then you won't like watching it. I'm personally not that bothered. I'm more bothered by the non-existent story.

That said, I did like that the special started in the summer and ended in the autumn. It was a nice touch to symbolise just how much time had passed since Thomas had left, and made the dialogue mean a lot more than if it had ended during the summer as well.

Also, yes, I liked the movements. Yes, they can be a huge distraction and I don't blame fans that don't like them (although those who bring "Awdry's vision" into it can really get lost). But they add a lot more expression to the characters, and that can only be a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

The only nitpick I have is that, as soon as the sun comes out in the Amazon after a huge downpour, the train suddenly becomes dry as though nothing had happened. I think the scene would've benefited had they just kept the rain soaked renders until they reached North America.

Final Thoughts
Overall, Big World! World Adventures! widens the scope of the show's world yet completely forgets that it needs to tell a story. While there are plenty of excellent character moments sprinkled throughout, and Thomas being torn between Ace and Nia is the strongest, best aspect of it, that's literally all it has to offer in its 80 minute run time.

Some can see this as a typical road trip movie with Thomas characters, and I agree with those who think that way. The problem, however, is that other road trip movies (even ones for kids) have far higher stakes, stronger - if simplistic - plots and something to actually gain by the end of the trip. This has none of those things. And as strong as the character moments are (I'll maintain they're some of the best until I'm dead and buried), they can only get you so far without a good story to back them up.
Film Rating: Bad