Sunday, 2 August 2015

Special and DVD Review: The Adventure Begins

This one was a long time coming. After a four month wait, numerous behind the scenes issues and a very... poor advertising campaign, The Adventure Begins has been released! So, here's my long awaited review of it!

I want to stress before I get started that my views here are not going to be reflective of the long time gap between the US and UK release; I've already complained about that enough here. I also won't be focusing on the marketing being a total shambles, as I've done that here. I'll just be focusing on the DVD as it's been released and my thoughts of the special (although I may mention them in the final thoughts section).

Front Cover
I've always loved the front covers of Arc's specials and this one is no exception. The dawn/dusk background is beautiful and I really like the addition of the book behind Thomas; it does a great job of encapsulating the old with the new.

That being said, considering how large Edward's role was here, it's a shame he's not standing proud next to Thomas, instead being relegated to said book. Other than that, though, I love it.

Rear Cover
Asda haven't provided a picture of the rear cover, but take my word for it: it's great. Really understated, very simplistic, but still well done.

The basic idea of the special is to tell the story of how Thomas grew from a shunting engine to the owner of his own branch line. But before anyone thinks it's just Thomas the Tank Engine adapted word for word again, there's actually much more to it than that.

The special actually starts at The Three Railway Engines, and Thomas is nowhere to be seen. Yet James is. And I'm going to tackle this now. No. I don't care. For all we know, James could have been there on trial before The Fat Controller bought him. It would explain why he's in his original black livery before his accident (by the way, that was a really lovely touch).

Edward and Gordon
The special pretty much follows the main bot  of the story, with Gordon getting stuck on the hill and Edward needing to help him. It starts out in the yard by Knapford Station with Gordon moaning about goods trains. For me, this part of the special shows its biggest strength overall: it's very much character driven. It shows that Thomas and Friends can keep its classic storytelling style without sticking to the storybook format.

I also really liked how each character was introduced; a quick description by the narrator of the vital information, then let the characters do the rest. It was a bit of a shame the original team didn't try this route too much with the model adaptations, but I can understand them wanting to keep the familiar style of the books.

Thomas' Arrival
I think the best introduction though went to Thomas. He's just so sweet and adorable. Also, if you listen carefully in the background, you can hear him say he comes from Brighton and has a slight boast about it. It's a really fun little tidbit that younger fans won't get, but older ones - and rail enthusiasts - would. It displays his character really well.

Also, I love his green livery. I know some have been complaining slightly since the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway livery was brown, but can you really imagine this livery selling that well?

For me, the livery they chose is the best of both worlds. It's green, which is a pretty simple colour to market, and it's based on the livery of the Southern Railway, which isn't too far away from the LB&SCR, so they could have just used that as a temporary livery since they knew he was going straight to the North Western Railway. I also like that his number is 70, a not so subtle nod as to what the special was made to commemorate..!

I really liked the montage of Thomas shunting in the yard and generally getting things wrong, although playing Really Useful Engine there was pretty odd, since he wasn't particularly useful then. The montage ends with the catalyst of Thomas and Gordon, which leads to another thing I really like: things flow more naturally than the book and the original adaptation. I'm not saying they're bad by a long shot, but it's just another example of the team using the classic storytelling style without the storybook structure.

The Sad Story of Henry
We're then introduced to Henry, and told of his incident in the tunnel through Edward and shown with flashbacks. I really like this, to be honest. Remember, this is Thomas' story, so breaking away from it drastically by showing Henry's plight in its entirety would have been jarring. Besides, it was still faithful, apart from one aspect...

Henry in his new shape. I'll say this: it's a distraction, nothing more. Changing Henry's shape wouldn't be like changing Thomas and James' liveries; they would have had to build a completely new model, which would probably be difficult to do thanks to time constraints. The only real problem it causes is a hand-waved excuse for Henry being unable to pull his train later, but even then, it wasn't that bad; boiler issues can affect any engine.

Using James to try and push Henry out was a very smart move. Considering the original illustration depicted an engine that looked similar to him, it made sense for the actual James to be used here. It was also better handled than the series 1 adaptation, which used Thomas because... reasons. A tank engine pushing a huge train out made absolutely no sense and lacked believability. This fixed both issues really well.

There are two other reasons why I liked Edward telling the story. The first one was subtly explained later: Henry may have felt embarrassed by the whole incident (that and he was probably focusing on the current rainfall intently). Secondly, Gordon's reaction when they reached his broken safety valve was brilliant. The humour here (visual and verbal) is another example of the team using another aspect of classic Awdry storytelling, which is lovely. It keeps everyone invested.

Thomas Turns Blue
We're then taken to the Steamworks where there's another montage of Thomas being repainted. I really like that the new location is used as it encapsulates what the team want to do perfectly: mixing old with new. And I also liked the pink undercoat nod to Tickled Pink. While some may think that Thomas' reaction to it was enforcing stereotypes (I'll admit it irked me on re-watch), it's not something that they dwell upon, so it's just another distraction.

Thomas then shows Edward his new paint like a proud son shows off to his father. And I think here's the best place to say that the best part of the special is the relationship between these two. It's sweet, it's natural, it's genuine. And it's the heart here that makes it extremely hard to criticise the special's flaws too much, especially if they're easy to look past in the first place.

The Original Number One
The most interesting part for me is the mention of the coffee pot. Sure, it doesn't lead to anything huge, but it was still pretty surprising that they'd go that deep with the back story of the NWR. These engines have only ever been mentioned once in The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways and The Railway Series: Surprise Packet, both of which are extremely rare these days.

Alone in the Yard
At this point, we're introduced to Annie and Clarabel, and I think it's great how they were handled here. They felt like great supporting characters, filling in the gaps that Edward left. And seeing their relationship grow - and how respectful Thomas is towards them, it made sense that they'd go to him in the end. Originally, they just seemed to come from nowhere and were given to Thomas for... reasons.

The montage following it was simply fantastic. You get a real feeling of Thomas trying to get things done the way Edward would. Also, the animation here is simply amazing. It's probably one of the best rendered shots of the special.

I also really loved the foreshadowing with James' wooden brakes. Not only is it really funny to see James' reactions whenever someone questions him about them, and not only is it awesome that they added brakes blocks to the model for added realism (it's a bit of a shame that the other engines didn't get any, but I digress), but it also feels real. Rather than it feeling sudden, they build up to it really well by showing how much wooden brakes erode over time. It feels realistic, which gets a huge thumbs up from me.

Henry's dynamic with Thomas was really good too, and it showed how much Thomas was growing with Edward's help. It makes him a much more relatable and well rounded character, something that this team are brilliant at creating or, in this case, emphasising in already established ones.

Thomas and Gordon
If you've seen the episode, or read the story, then this part practically follows the book. Although the train passing Edward, and the station speaker, were really nice touches. Gordon's additional boasting throughout was brilliant as well.

The Breakdown Train
The next scene shows Thomas meeting the breakdown train or, as they're known here, Jerome and Judy. I'll get to their personae in a bit, but I actually quite like them being introduced here. As I've said, it feels like things flow naturally. I'm also glad that they made the breakdown train rather than take the easy way out using Rocky.

Thomas' Train
The weird thing about this part is that the train consists of red coaches rather than bogie coaches, although that could be because both versions before this special used them. They have shown main line trains (apart from the express) using bogie coaches in recent years. But the red ones still have the desired effect.

Another part I really liked is how Thomas left without the train. In fact, this telling made me realise that the original left so many questions as to what could have happened yet didn't seem to want to answer any of them. Here though, it's made clear that he mistakes one guard's whistle for his own, which makes a lot of sense and makes it clear cut for everyone.

Thomas and the Trucks
After some teasing, it then transitions smoothly to Thomas' initial troubles with the trucks, which was really well done in all aspects. It shows Thomas being warned by Edward about them, rather than the narrator saying he did, and the song was a much better fit for the scene than the first one.

One thing I thought they might have cleared up though is why the Fat Controller was at Maron when Thomas raced in. It felt rather contrived then and it still does here. And considering how many plot holes they do fill, leaving this one open is all the more distracting.

That said, Edward being punished for what happened was actually an interesting touch. How he knew that Edward was involved with the duty swap we don't know, but all too often throughout the years have culprits for incidents gone forgotten and unpunished, but that wasn't the case here, which was great. It would have been better had they explained how the Fat Controller knew the full story, but we can't have it all.

Facing Fears
In all honesty, the next two scenes are where Thomas really shone as showed how multi-layered his character is. Yes, he's careless and cheeky, but when his friends needed him, he was there. I know that Henry's fear was originally dealt with by his driver's promise of a rub down at the end of each day, but this feels far less superficial. Thomas genuinely wants to help by making him realise how harmless the rain is, which is a wonderful message to send to kids (the best way to help a friend is to lead by example).

Thomas and the Breakdown Train
And the second scene where Thomas really shines. The book and original adaptation was realistic from a railway standpoint, but this feels real on a character standpoint. You can't really imagine Thomas just staying in the yard while the trucks have their way with James.

James' reactions were also really natural as well. I've heard complaints that he sounds "childish", but if you were running away with no way of stopping, wouldn't you react in the same or, at least, a similar way?

The chase in itself was pretty ridiculous, but with the story being this strong, I just don't care. It leaves you invested; you want Thomas to catch James. you want the guard to couple them up. And that, for me, is what matters the most. If the characters are strong enough, and the story is good enough, the action scenes will take care of themselves.

And then there was the crash, which may have been one of the highlights of the special (although it's hard to tell; all of it was brilliant). What was great about this was that it was never seen in the books or the original adaptation, and it was handled fantastically. It's also a breath of fresh air that they actually showed a huge accident like this in the CGI era. The last time we actually saw a huge smash was James to the Rescue, only that was there to mask the problems with the story that was told. Here, the story was enhanced by the accident as it showed the severity of James' plight rather than it being implied.

The rest followed the story pretty much by the book, only it was more character driven rather than relying on narration, which was great. It felt really natural.

James being licked by the cow was really funny. The team seemed to have fun picking apart that insignificant moment in the story, and I liked how it played out.

After James is rescued, the celebration reaches Tidmouth Sheds. I'm happy that they included all of the characters in with it as they'd all been impacted by Thomas, or they had an impact on him. It brings things together in a believable, natural way. Meanwhile, Gordon's comment about tender engines not shunting, with the Fat Controller saying that he may need to get another small engine, may have hinted at there being a follow up, which I'd love.

I have to be honest though, James' return was a bit... weird. The interaction was fine, but how would Thomas and Edward have never seen him before? The only thing that's changed is his livery. That said, the rest of the scene played out well. It was also rather interesting to know that James used to pull Annie and Clarabel before being given to Thomas. It wasn't explained why, but it was still interesting.

The final scenes with Thomas passing through on his way to the branch line were, by far, the best. Not only were they emotional, not only did it actually feel warranted to put Really Useful Engine in as the backing track, but you felt really proud for Thomas. He'd gone through many trials and tribulations, and at the end of it all, he had earned his place on the railway. It was an inspiring end to a fantastic journey.

I've crowed about how good Arc's animation has been since they took over, but this is probably one of the best animated Thomas and Friends projects to date. The first few shots alone are bite-the-back-of-your-hand beautiful, and it only gets better from there. The shot above looks almost real. It's incredible.

All of the rain effects here are stunning. Whether it's the drop of water splashing on Henry's running board or the water all over Thomas, it feels like you're actually there, and these shots alone make a case against bringing the models back (well, that and many other things).

I also loved the look of Ffarquhar. It seems to have changed a bit since it was last seen, but it still looks fantastic. The additional platform was a nice touch; it feels like they may have had goods trains that go beyond the station in mind. That or they just wanted to make it look more realistic, I don't mind either way.

The detailing on new character Glynn was brilliant too. The foliage around him felt almost real, and the same can be said about James' scratches and grassy scrapes after his accident. Whichever way you look at it, an amazingly animated special.

Perfect though? Nope. There are the usual errors where things disappear and re-appear. And there's also one goof which provides some really unfortunate foreshadowing near the beginning as James' tender turns red. But there's another goof which seems rather dangerous: Jerome and Judy lifting both James and his tender at the same time. I think that scene would have been better had they lifted them both separately. But that's a minor flaw, really.

New Characters
It seems like this is probably the most contentious character of the current team's tenure so far. Some have said he's pointless while others have said that his inclusion was... fan service, which I really don't get since many fans had never really known that coffee pots worked on Sodor until this special came along. Personally though, I think his role was one of the most important in Thomas' story, and here's why.

While Glynn's role is very short, what it does is give Thomas something to strive for. It feels like a way of passing the torch onto a new, younger generation. Glynn knows his time is up; his kind was very unreliable, and while he did his best to run the branch line, he couldn't keep things going forever. The Fat Controller probably knew it too, so kept him in the siding until something permanent could be done with him. So when Thomas comes along, he decides, as his last major impact, to wish his successor luck with his new job. Meanwhile, Thomas strives to run the line better than his predecessor. Maybe that's why he thinks it's the most important part of the railway..?

Will Glynn return? Probably not. But he's a well thought out, well researched character for a one-off and his impact will forever be felt on the Ffarquhar branch line.

If these two are never used again, it'll be a crying shame, as they seem like Merrick done right: liking a snooze when they're not on duty, but alert and serious when duty calls. I also quite like they made one crane male and the other female, putting both on a level playing field. And, considering how character driven the special is, giving the breakdown train faces was a smart move in itself.

Like I said though, I'd hate for these two to never be seen again, as I really do think they'd have a role to play in the actual series. They could handle emergencies on the main line while Rocky can take care of the branches. It seems strange otherwise to have only one crane handling all the derailments and whatnot on an island that has Belle and Flynn fighting fires.

Voice Acting
If this special made me realise one thing, it's how many characters Keith Wickham voices. Every major character featured here - apart from Thomas, all the humans that have a small part, the Fat Controller and even Glynn are voiced by him. While Gordon's driver and the signalman sound like his normal voice and Glynn sounds like Skarloey, his other characters were voiced really well.

Tim Whitnall sounded fine as Jerome, but... the voices for all of his characters sound so similar to each other. It's a bit of a shame. That said, he's not a bad voice actor, and Jerome doesn't have a bad voice. It's just incredibly distracting how similar every character he lends his voice to sounds.

Judy is voiced really well by Teresa Galalgher, Christopher Ragland was great as the Troublesome Trucks and Mark Moraghan continues to show why he's my favourite narrator the show has had so far.

But the stand out performer was, by far, John Hasler as Thomas. It was always going to be a difficult job replacing Ben Small, as he'd set the benchmark for the role. But Hasler stepped up the mark and then some. He sounded so natural and into it; the voice was full of passion. I really can't praise it highly enough; he was absolutely superb.

Music and Songs
For his first production as a solo composer, Peter Hartshorne did an excellent job. It was a lovely touch taking inspiration from the original themes from the first series, and they were recreated really well, to the point where they felt like modern classics.

As for the songs? I liked them both! The remake of Troublesome Trucks was well done, although I can't really say it's given me a new appreciation for the song as it was only released on a DVD from a newspaper here in the UK a few years ago, so I never really grew up with it. That said, the new additions were great and fit the story well.

Really Useful Engine is no stranger to a remake. It got the treatment in 2000 and it was haphazardly thrown in with no connection to the story and simply remade because... they could. Here though, everyone involved made (I'm being serious here) my favourite version of the song. While yes, the first insertion was slightly off, the second one really hammered in "the feels" as the kids say these days. Seriously though, the ending is one of the most happy, most emotional moments of the show, and that song placement is a huge reason why.

Final Thoughts (Special)
I've read that this whole special is "fan service". To be honest, I don't really see it. From what I can tell, fan service is an inclusion, or an overall project, being made solely because fans wanted it, and as far as I can tell, many fans weren't clamouring for this; they were perfectly fine with what they had: the original stories and the first seven episodes of the show.

Instead, I see this as a love letter to the family without whom none of this would be possible. It's a celebration of 70 years of Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends, and everyone involved did an amazing job.

This also did, as far as I'm concerned, an adaptation right: respecting the source material while still adding bits that wouldn't have felt out of place in the original stories. The last time I've felt this was the case was series 4's Fish, which is not only one of my favourite adaptations, but one of my favourite episodes of the show. Likewise, this is my all time favourite special. No, it's not perfect at all, but the heart, emotion and fantastic writing throughout completely overshadow the slight niggles I may have.
Special Rating: 10/10

Bonus Features
For the first time on a UK DVD, the bonus features of this DVD includes an episode: series 18's Old Reliable Edward, which in itself is a modern classic. If you want my advice, watch the special and the episode back to back, as it makes Edward and Thomas' relationship in the episode feel even better than it was (and it was brilliant when the episode first aired). The only distraction is hearing Ben Small's voice again, but he's still great!

Also included are the music videos for the two songs featured in the special as well as Best Friends Express which, while it isn't terrible, it's still pretty generic, even without comparing it to the redone songs in the special.

There's also a trailer for Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure. I've seen it in the cinema (multiple times), so I won't spoil anything here. But let's just say it's a film I recommend you buy on DVD, when it's released in the UK at the end of September.

The presentation, as with all Thomas and Friends DVDs, is fantastic. Like I said in the main review, the animation is high quality and the voice acting was just as good. But there's not really much more to add here.

This DVD is an Asda exclusive, which they're selling at £7. For what you're getting, it's fantastic value, but it's not available at every store. The bigger the Asda you go to, the better your chances of finding it.

Final Thoughts (DVD)
Best Thomas DVD this years so far, hands down. The only real shame is that it had a four and a half month delay, but considering it debuted at number 1 in Asda's kids DVD chart, beating the ever so average Home, not even that's a problem! I definitely recommend it, but you'll need to get it when you can as it's been selling brilliantly so far!

As for the notion of there being a follow up? This special has proved they can, and I've read that the team really want to make one, so I'd completely support them if they decide to go down that route. There are quite a few roads they could go down: they could switch the focus onto James, they could follow Thomas' adventures on his branch line. Or they could, which the special was hinting at, go for the strike plot line from Troublesome Engines, introducing Percy in the process.

But whether or not a follow up happens depends on whether this sells well. So if you've bought it for your kids, grandkids, nieces or nephews, pass the message on to fellow parents, grandparents, etc. that this special exists. If those kids like Thomas, they will not be disappointed with this.