Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Journey Beyond Sodor

You'll notice that this review isn't a DVD review. That's because the DVD is being released here in October, while the special just finished its cinema run, and I can't be bothered to wait two months to get a review done. I've talked about this in a previous post, but my final comment on the matter is this: stop screwing the UK over, Mattel! We're in a global market now, get with the times! Anyway, Journey Beyond Sodor review.

After The Great Race disappointed last year with missed potential and unfortunate implications all over the place, the team had a lot to prove this year with their newest special. But will Journey Beyond Sodor be as great as the trailer made it out to be? And, more important, would it be as good as The Great Race?

So we begin with yet another pointless, pace damaging description of the North Western Railway, throwing as many characters as possible to cameo. Not only have we had this for Bubbling Boilers and The Adventure Begins (at least it worked with the latter; it wasn't too long and it was meant to be a retelling of an origin story), but it adds literally nothing as Sodor barely gets any focus (the only major locations are Knapford, Tidmouth Sheds and, weirdly, Thomas' branch line).

The funniest part of this? They give Sodor such a glowing description, pinpointing on all the major details of the railway's operations, a mere year before the show focuses on sending Thomas around the world, potentially making Sodor an afterthought. Then again, this special does a "great" job of making the island look as dull as possible to make the mainland seem exciting.

That is something I truly don't like about the special. The engine movements I can deal with, and I'll talk about that in the animation section. But disrespecting the world that your own show exists in is inexcusable. It's hard to tell whether the narrative was meant to be taken this way, but the power of perception is an important storytelling tool. With Thomas abandoning his branch line - again, calling it "the same old railway" and only starting to care when... well, I'll get to that later, Sodor getting very little attention (and the attention it does get is mundane and fairly uneventful) and both Thomas and James (two of the show's most important engines) vying to take a train that takes them away from the island, what's the audience supposed to think of Sodor? Especially if this is a child's first experience with the show?

I really, really hope this was unintentional - or, at least, a one off. And I hope Sodor gets some more exciting adventures in the future, especially once the reboot takes effect. But if this is a sign of things to come, I feel this will be the biggest desecration of the Awdry legacy since Thomas and the Magic Railroad. He put his heart and soul into making a world that captured the hearts of so many, and to potentially abandon that to catch up with Paw Patrol - a show it will never beat since kids like dogs more than railways - would be the saddest, most ridiculous thing Mattel has ever forced the writing team to do. 

Anyway, the special then channels Blue Mountain Mystery (minus the poor pacing) by having an engine get into trouble so the main plot can begin. To be fair, this was a brilliant way to start, and probably should have been the first thing we saw, even if the shots of Sodor were fantastic. Henry's accident was brilliant and everyone becoming frantic provided some much needed urgency to the situation. It's possibly one of the best crashes of the show. It was also nice that the crash was caused by a railway based problem (a faulty signal), even if it adds to the inconsistency of realism/over the top action.

After we get a great stylised intro (the first one since Tale of the Brave), we get... possibly one of the worst scenes of any Andrew Brenner special so far. It's funny that fans are so against Disney owning the rights to the show, since this seems to have been taken right out of their playbook. I get that it's there to show that Thomas is really happy, but considering the final few episodes before this saw him complain that his photograph wasn't taken, get offended that someone implied he wasn't special and mocking Duck and Mike's misfortunes, this feels incredibly random and kind of ridiculous.

Somebody Has to Be the Favourite
Fortunately, things get back on track again with James stealing the spotlight and beginning to sing. It is a bit weird and the song itself is merely fine, but James himself is absolutely brilliant. He actually feels as smug as he did back in the day, and he has a valid reason to feel that way. It's honestly the best representation of James since series 5.

The scene itself was also pretty funny and was good motivation for Thomas to want to take the train that Henry was due to take. I don't think he was particularly cheeky though; he felt more fussy, devious and borderline selfish. Either way, I feel it worked out better this time around since there was something substantial there rather than a fear of missing out like The Great Race.

Who Will Replace Henry?
We then see Henry being loaded onto Jerome and Judy's flatbeds. I've seen fans complain that they used Jerome and Judy despite being on the other side of the island but... did you see what happened to Henry? Yes, Rocky can lift Henry alone, but with the position he ended up in, they needed two cranes to ensure he didn't fall and cause more damage. Also, Rocky could've been needed elsewhere, which would explain Harvey's cameo rather than seeing all three cranes at once.

It leads to a brilliant scene with the Fat Controller trying to sort the mess out. It was great to see him be authoritative and funny at the same time, although he may need to invest in better windows considering Thomas overheard everything..!

That said, it did lead to a brilliant scene where Thomas tries to talk James out of going to the mainland by playing off the fact it's a goods train, something James hates. It's just a great little character scene, and it's honestly one that made me like James more than I did (by that, I mean I didn't like him much before series 20. In hindsight, Pouty James feels like a godsend for his character, even if the episode itself was incredibly frustrating). He's one of the best characters of the special: really smug, arrogant, intelligent, standing no nonsense and simply entertaining.

What wasn't was seeing Thomas whinge about not getting his own way... again. In Tit for Tat, it worked since he thought he was important since he ran the branch line. In this and The Great Race, he felt much more bratty because more suitable engines were chosen for specific things: to compete in the Railway Show last year and taking the goods train this.

The Journey Beyond Sodor
We then see James and Rosie at Vicarstown to discover Thomas has taken the train... because of course he did. I love that Rosie has been put there and given her overhaul. It feels like she belongs there, and hopefully it could mean she gets more to do. It would also be great if she was given more personality than she's ever had before, but time will tell on that aspect.

However, it does lead on to the biggest problem of the special: there's no consistency whatsoever. They want to be grounded in railway realism, which is great. But they can't exactly do that when they expect viewers to believe that an engine's crew intentionally got up early, went against the timetable and bowed to Thomas' demand to take the train. This only gets worse as the special goes on, but the takeaway from the whole special is this: either be grounded in railway realism or have the engines do what they want. You can't have both otherwise it confuses the audience, and tone, completely!

Also, Thomas' enthusiasm seems rather... weird considering the mainland feels so incredibly barren and dull (which is ironic considering they tried to make Sodor out to be uninteresting). Yes, he has a childlike wonder to him, and yes, the special was hampered significantly by the month lost due to Arc's bankruptcy. But as a first impression, the mainland is a bit of a letdown, and it's hard to understand why Thomas is so excited other than "he's somewhere new".

That said, the Troublesome Trucks were absolutely brilliant. They were disruptive, cheeky, fun and pretty much owned every scene they were in. Considering the show seems to focusing more on comedy now, and more trucks are gaining faces (although more colour variety would be great in future), I'm hoping there's more to come from them.

Meanwhile, on Sodor, James complains about Thomas taking the trucks. Sure, it was a hit to his ego, as was him being rostered to Thomas' branch, but you can also understand his frustration. Regardless of what happened to James, the Fat Controller shrugged off the fact that one of his engines whined and got his own way without any concern for his well being until much later. True, he had other problems to deal with at that moment, but maybe he could've said "oh dear, I must look into that" rather than... nothing?

His interactions on the branch line with Annie and Clarabel were brilliant throughout though. They did a great job of building his motivations for wanting to find Thomas (even if it made Sodor look dull) and it was rather entertaining seeing the coaches try and stay calm with a really difficult engine.

Meeting Beresford
This scene added nothing to the story. If anything, it made Thomas look stupid that he didn't notice that there was a line under Beresford to bypass the boat earlier than he did. Maybe he thought Beresford would be helpful so didn't bother to look for a getaway route? It's hard to say for sure. It's a great character scene though, even if it added nothing.

Who's Thomas?
All that said, I really like the song. It doesn't add anything in terms of plot either, but it does make you feel for Beresford as a character, and it makes you understand why he was so desperate to stop Thomas for a chat here and later on.

Experimental Engines
Honestly, this doesn't really add much to the overall story either; Thomas running out of coal feels like it was used as another inconvenience to talk to these new characters than anything that would advance the plot (especially since they have no idea where Bridlington is). It does introduce Theo and Lexi really well though. It gives viewers a great idea of their dynamic and their individual characters.

The Steelworks
This scene was fantastic. The steelworks was built up beautifully (although that "we're not on Sodor any more" line felt out of place since they'd been away from it quite a while already. But hey, Wizard of Oz reference that so many other shows have done...) and seeing Hurricane and Frankie come out of the shadow of the inside of the steelworks was brilliant.

The Hottest Place in Town
I haven't instantly loved a song this much since We Make a Team Together from Lost Treasure. The backing track is sensational, the singing is fantastic and it actually feels like it fits the story really well. It shows off the steelworks so brilliantly that it makes you want to work there yourself.

While we're here, I love Hurricane and Frankie as antagonists. They have one huge flaw, which I'll get to, but them sounding... normal compared to other villains (the voice actors don't ham things up like Sailor John and Diesel 10 did) makes them seem more... dangerous to me. It's much more difficult to see the warning signs that they are the villains until... well, I'll get to that soon too.

Percy Reverts to Type
Another scene at Tidmouth and... wow, has Andrew really screwed Percy over in the last two specials... At this point, it feels like he's intentionally forgetting the arc Percy went through in Tale of the Brave. The stupidest thing about it is that he's more than happy to reference Down the Mine and Thomas Comes to Breakfast through James! My message to Brenner is simple: stop cherry picking your continuity! Either reference all the events of the past that need to be referenced or don't bother trying to add continuity at all. Again, you can't have it both ways!

Do you know what makes this even worse though? Letters to Santa. Think about it: Percy was more than happy to go the mainland to try and find Harold. Yet he tries to say he's "too scared" to look for his best friend? It later turned out he's been as far as Bridlington before last year! So why is he being so cowardly? It's really infuriating as Brenner's not just telling kids not to face your fears - again - but he's also devaluing one of the best specials he's written so far for, as far as I can tell, no real reason!

Put to Work
And now we come to the biggest point of contention: heavily implied slavery in a preschool film. It's a... bold move, I suppose? I can definitely understand why it's a taboo subject these days, but while it's troublesome, I can sort of understand why they'd use this particular theme. Hurricane and Frankie felt as though Thomas owed them a favour since they finished his job, and since he was worried more about getting home, they felt like that was their only way to get him to stay.

It's another reason why I love these two as antagonists (well, Hurricane's more a shade of grey than Frankie). They have solid reasoning for their actions... almost (yes, I'll get to that), and they're just so convincing to the audience that they're hard to argue against. They're very intelligent and cunning, which is what previous antagonists have lacked.

Also, to those saying this was "too scary" for your kids, toughen them up a bit. I'm not saying "turn them into violent thugs", but it's obvious that they're being mollycoddled and protected from the negative aspects of life. Yes, the world's terrible at the moment, but perseverance and inner strength are valuable traits to have, and not allowing kids to grow and develop these traits is, frankly, damaging to their character. Not all kids were scared; the ones in the cinema screening I went to didn't seem that bothered. But it's the parents who want to find things to complain about that are the problem. You can't protect your kids from everything forever; you have to prepare them for these things in the right way. And whining on the internet when they get upset over effective antagonists says more about your inability to bring your kids up to be strong willed, well rounded members of society than it does a piece of fiction that's portraying the bad characters as... well, bad characters.

Another example of Percy's character being torn down again... why does he think being delayed is worse than being lost? Granted, being delayed is frustrating and could lead to worse, but wouldn't being lost be the least favourable of the two since you're more likely to get into trouble? I know these bits with Percy don't add anything to the story, but they completely take away from the character he's been in series 19 and 20, and that is really sad.

What's also sad is the team pandering to meme culture with the Fat Controller saying "keep calm and carry on". Granted it didn't feel out of place, but it does lead me to worry if this is a sign of things to come. Mainstream American TV feels homogenised enough with the pop culture references, standard humour (whether it be bodily humour or jokes with a basic punchline) and characters that feel the same in every show; we don't need to turn a great British export, that focused on quality storytelling, themes and characters to go the same way. If anything, I'm more worried about that than the potential of the show travelling the world (I have no problem with that concept, but the potential repercussions it would have on Sodor).

Are Frankie and Hurricane Lazy?
This is more answering a point brought up in a DeviantART post (you should read it, it's pretty good) saying Hurricane and Frankie did nothing around the steelworks while Thomas and, later, James did everything. That's only half true. While yes, they didn't help in the steelworks itself, this scene proves they actually were getting stuff done: taking the prepared metal elsewhere (probably Bridlington goods yard). Frankie did say by the end that there was "too much work" for the both of them; maybe there was a backlog of metal deliveries they had to deal with? That bit, again, I'll get to later.

I Want to Go Home
This song did what previous scenes failed to do: make you care about the situation Thomas was in as he actually realises how much he's screwed up. Before, you weren't that bothered about his plight since... well, he got what he wanted: an adventure on the mainland.

As for the song, while it's not my favourite of the special, it connects to the plot well and the lyrics are great (the fact that Thomas mentioned Annie, Clarabel, Percy and Toby first warmed my heart). Also, I love how the song starts with a sombre tone when Thomas realises how badly he's messed up then builds to become more upbeat and determined when he realises what he needs to do. It's a fantastic piece of composition work by Oliver Davis.

Also, the rescue scene after the song was another example as to why Hurricane and Frankie are brilliant characters. While Frankie is more frustrated that her plan to keep Thomas may be failing, he's more concerned about Thomas' safety. But it begs a question the special doesn't answer: why are Hurricane and Frankie close colleagues/friends? Is it a case of opposites attract? Did they have some sort of a mutual interest in something?

Compare this to John and Skiff, where the situation is more cut and dry. While it's not clear how they met, what is clear is that Skiff is only with John at that point because he can't get out of the situation. Hurricane and Frankie's dynamic feels too vague, to be honest. Maybe if they added 10 more minutes, or if they hadn't wasted the added minutes on pointless fluff at the start, they could've had more character moments for the ones that matter to the story rather than ones that, while great, don't have any impact until the last 15-20 minutes.

James the Hero?
After getting annoyed of being on Thomas' branch, James sets out to find Thomas. I have mixed feelings about this. In terms of character motivation, it's great. It makes sense that he'd want to rescue Thomas for the gratification. However, in terms of the overall theme of friendship, it makes zero sense. Heck, Percy would've made more sense if he wasn't being such a coward. His naivety would've played off Hurricane and Frankie well, his determination in the face of fear would've been admirable and inspiring and that friendship lesson would've had more weight behind it if those two were given a reason as to why they'd want to be away from each other, like Love Me Tender.

If you had to use James while sticking with the theme though, why not just have him remember the positive impacts Thomas had on him? Andrew likes adding continuity at really stupid times, but referencing incidents like the one in The Adventure Begins would've made a ton of sense and it would've shown that James actually cared about Thomas enough in return to save him for a more selfless reason.

Escaping the Steelworks
This scene was brilliant from start to end. You cared about whether Thomas escaped, the chase itself was rather thrilling and Thomas was actually rather intelligent with regards to using a few flatbeds as a battering ram.

There is a bit of a talking point here though: the realism aspect with the points. The DA post says that it "ruins the momentum" of the scene, but... I disagree. The whole point of the scene is for Thomas to find somewhere to hide, and that's what the scene portrayed. If anything, the realism of the points change added more tension as you knew that Hurricane and Frankie were coming and you weren't sure whether they'd catch him before the points changed. I thought it was great...

...except for the fact that it's another way of cherry picking the parts they want to be realistic and the parts they weren't bothered about. As soon as he breaks free, the flatbeds go one way and Thomas the other. I've said it twice now, but with this, the previous instances and the ones further on (as well as the magical turning as soon as the camera cuts to something else), I feel the need to say it again: you can't have it both ways! I don't even care which way you go, just be consistent with it and there'll be no problems!

The chase leads to Thomas meeting up with Merlin for the first time. The whole thing is handled fantastically - he's hidden remarkably well and only appears as a dark silhouette for a couple of seconds, playing up the "invisibility" aspect of his design really well. It's also nice that he tries and calm Thomas down after the stressful situation he was in. Unfortunately, Merlin is only seen for the final 20 minutes of the special, so we don't see much of him. That said, he makes enough of an impact, and he does try to help Thomas and the plot, so it's not that bad.

The Search for Thomas
James arrives at Bridlington goods yard. I have quite a bit to say about James' journey to be honest, so let's get it all out of the way now: it's an absolute mess. Thomas' journey went from Vicarstown to the junction (that's never seen again) to the canal (which James avoids until he's guided to the steelworks where he travels the same way that Thomas did) to the yard with the experiments to the steelworks, never even making it to Bridlington. Yet James goes straight there with no fuss. Not only does this point out how pointless the first scenes with Beresford, Theo and Lexi were, but how was it even possible? Plot convenience? That's the only explanation I have for it; it's incredibly weird.

Also, now that Bridlington goods yard is a major focus of the story, here's another question: how did Thomas not know where it was? He was there last year for the Great Railway Show! If he'd forgotten, fair enough. But that's never made clear, and revealing that Bridlington yard was where the show took place, it makes him seem stupid that he can't remember the route. It's another example of cherry picking continuity, although this could be more accidental since Jam Filled may have used The Great Race's yard to cut corners due to the lost time. Even so, the visuals are a major aspect of the storytelling, and whether it was intentional or not, it creates yet another plot hole.

That said, I like that the three diesels (well, two of the three) from The Great Race were given a bit more to say and do. There have been complaints that they have American voices, which I can completely understand. It's weird and does feel out of place that British diesels in England are speaking with American accents, but I don't think it's a bad thing. After hearing how terrible Max, Monty and Victor's old voices were, I'd rather they suit the characters rather than their country of origin (although having both would be ideal), and these voices by John Schwab suit the characters brilliantly.

Also, the trucks pretty much stole the scene as soon as they were seen in the yard. I'll say it again: they are absolutely hilarious, and it would be a crying shame if this didn't lead to bigger things for them. They are simply random goofballs that just want to cause mayhem, and I love it. Dare I say they're better than they were in the books? Granted there was more visual variety in the books, but now they have much personality than simply saying "On, on, on!" and "Oh, oh, oh!" more often than not.

I also really like how the scene ended. It's never really explained why Hurricane's there, but the grin when he realises that there could be another engine to manipulate was fantastically done, as was the reveal of him being behind the train of one of the diesels. It all worked really well.

We Can't Do Anything
I really like this song, to be honest. With Thomas feeling depressed about messing up so much, it was really nice that they Theo and Lexi tried to cheer Thomas up in their own unusual way. It also seemed to fit their own characters as they feel like outcasts solely for being different, which leads to a theme that is so good, I can't bring myself to hate the special, even if a lot of the story is sloppily written.

It was also a great way to bring Merlin back into the fold. His positivity is rather infectious and his elderly, charming voice is fantastic. Constantly saying "invisibility... ON!" gets old quickly, but at least there's a purpose to it, unlike Ferdinand's "that's right!" and it's not as overbearing as Fergus saying "do it right!".

Unfortunately though, neither the song or the scene add much to the story. Sure, Merlin offers to help, but then Theo suggests that Thomas and he leaves them high and dry. And although they tried to cheer him up, he left the yard feeling as down as he did when he arrived. It added more character to the piece, which was great, but most of it still could've been cut and things wouldn't have changed that much. Except Merlin would've come out of nowhere in the next scene.

The Wrath of Beresford
Returning to the canal, Beresford literally catches Thomas and lifts him by the cab roof. It's hard to tell whether they thought it was a good idea or they just wanted to top the ridiculousness of the bridge jump, but... I don't mind it that much. I don't love it; it's yet another example of the confliction the narrative has between grounded realism and over the top silliness, but unlike the bridge jump it had a point to it - eventually - when Thomas wanted Beresford to hide him from Hurricane and Frankie.

However, Beresford's major flaw unravelled during this scene: his motivations are exactly the same as Frankie's. The only difference is that he simply wants to talk to engines and be friends which, for a crane, is a motivation you can understand. It honestly made me feel bad for Beresford that he felt so lonely, he resorted to these measures solely to talk to someone. Meanwhile, Frankie's motivations are only half baked (I will get to that).

The most baffling part of the scene though is where Hurricane, Frankie and James travel from; as I've said before, it's the same way Thomas came from near the start... yet they shouldn't be anywhere near the canal whatsoever. It makes you question where Bridlington goods yard and this canal really are on the map. To top it all off, it makes things really confusing, damaging the continuity completely. It's difficult to come up with a solution here, to be honest. Maybe, if you had to have Thomas and Beresford see those three pass. swap scenes around at the beginning so the canal and steelworks are closer together?

Where's Thomas?
That said though, it does lead to a fantastic scene with James, Hurricane and Frankie. James' no nonsense attitude (probably spawned from the fact that he'd been messed around before and, now he'd found who he was looking for, wasn't prepared to be messed around again) was fantastic, and Hurricane and Frankie's desperation to keep him around when their usual plan had failed further solidified why they're fantastic antagonists (still with one major flaw). No complaints at all.

The Rescue Operation
At last, a scene where the experimental engines have purpose! And it's also a brilliant way to show off the dynamic between the three. It's been said by fans since it was released in the US, but this is the Logging Locos done right, mostly because these three have unique, distinct personalities, while the Misty Island residents have interchangeable personalities.

The plan itself was nothing that other shows hadn't done before, so it was rather predictable. But it was still well executed and and suit the characters well. It was also rather funny that Thomas knew Merlin well enough to tell him to stay back. It's still fairly obvious he'd get involved regardless, but it's still a fun little character moment. In fact, all the character moments are the special's strong points.

From there though, things get fairly predictable: Hurricane and Frankie hear the ruckus, Thomas looks for, and finds, James, Merlin gets involved and the antagonists get suspicious. It's nothing new whatsoever, but it's still fairly engaging. I also love how James lambastes Thomas when he arrives and only cares about his looks this once, which makes more sense since it's a job he's never done before. Again, it's driven brilliantly by the strength of its characters.

The only nitpick I have is that their conflict is pretty much forgotten about after this point. They apologise to each other, sure, but it felt like that was a case of glossing over what had happened. Then again, they did just escape a situation where they could've been killed, so maybe that put things into perspective for them.

Chase Around the Steelworks
This was the big set piece of the special and it's... not as good as Lost Treasure's, but it was still fun. The direction was fantastic, the action was fast paced and seeing all the major protagonists help James and, eventually, Thomas from Hurricane and Frankie.

What was less thrilling about the whole thing was the situation with Thomas. It was contrived at best and utterly ridiculous (not in a good way) at worst. We got the message after The Great Race: Thomas is coated in plot armour. But this took that to a whole new level with all the deus ex machinas around him to stop him burning to death.

The definite highlight though was what happened to Hurricane. Not only was it a great way to show he was willing to sacrifice himself to save someone he considered a friend, but it was rather harrowing that there was nearly a death in a preschool show. That said, I wish this kind of thing had happened to Frankie. Almost losing a friend due to her obsessive desire to have others to work with was a good punishment, but I feel that having her go through that could've had slightly more of an impact on her.

Also, the justification she had for doing what she did was, like I said earlier, only really half formed. I can understand that they needed help, and I can understand that no other engines would really want to work in a really hot place. What I can't understand is why she'd resorted to forced labour to get that help. Granted, she had more of a reason within the film as someone like Sailor John did, but her ends don't justify the means enough. Maybe there was a huge delivery backlog and, if things didn't improve, the steelworks would close? That way, she'd feel more desperate to find engines to keep there and she would've saved her home from closure? The forced labour would've been troubling still, but at least you could see her point of view more clearly.

The Most Important Thing is Being Friends
And we've reached the final song of the special and it's... alright. It sums up the moral they were going for fairly well, even if the execution of said lesson is a bit sloppy. But compared to Be Who You Are and Go Far and We Make a Team Together, also ending songs exemplifying the overall basic lesson of their particular specials, it's not all that memorable.

That said, the thing I love about about the special is the theme of inclusivity. As much as a country where Nazis are booming, and a fanbase full of conservatives who hate change would rather it not be the case, the world is full of a variety of wonderful, fascinating characters that deserve to be given a shot in life, and the fact that this show is incorporating that philosophy (it's not an "agenda, get lost with that way of thinking) is wonderful. Call me an SJW or any other overused, pathetic buzzword as much as you want, but if wanting to be accepted - not just tolerated, the same rights that straight, white people have abused for years and wanting hatred and evil to die makes me a "bad person", then I'll see you in Hell with a smile on my face knowing I have a conscience.

Back to the special with my final point: another continuity error. Henry spends the whole special in the Steamworks being repaired, which is fair enough, but also surprising considering some jobs at the Steamworks take a few minutes. Anyway, my point is that Hurricane almost gets burned to the ground, needing his whole wheelbase to be repaired, and that's all done in... about 4 minutes? Where's the consistency? That said, Henry's last line was hilarious.

Oh boy. If the story wasn't enough of a mixed bag, the animation is just as big of one, if not even bigger. Let's start with the positives: this is an absolutely beautiful looking special. The camera angles and sweeping shots are superb, the lighting is great (if a bit weird on the mainland; it doesn't look as natural as it does on Sodor) and that intro looked fantastic. It had a brilliant style to it, combining the map of Sodor and the feel of the Steelworks.

And then there are the movements. I already did a post about them when the trailer and behind the scenes stuff were released, but now that the special has been released, my final opinion... hasn't changed a bit. If anything, it's only worsened against the fans who think this is the "worst thing ever" solely because the visual storytelling has been improved by its implementation.

Oh, and saying it's "like Chuggington now" just makes me think: have you ever seen that show? As someone who has, I can tell you the engines jumping about all over the place wasn't its biggest problem. In fact, it wasn't even in the top 10. Its biggest problems were mediocre animation, a railway that looked and felt like actual play sets, bland characters, bad stories that only got worse and being devoid of any charm that Thomas has.

That said, the animation isn't perfect, and you can definitely tell that corners were cut in order to get the special ready in time for release despite the month lost due to Arc's bankruptcy. Grass and ballast is missing completely in every outdoor shot, leaving only basic ground textures, which is a shame. And yes, I know why, as do most "adult" fans. But general consumers don't; they'll just see it as lazy and unfinished.

Another example of a problem that may have been left in due to time constraints was James' axle box clipping through the rear of his tender more often than not. I honestly don't know how this one wasn't caught since he's such a prominent character throughout the special!

Moving away from rendering issues, the only other issue I have is that, while a majority of the movements are great, and I can understand the exaggerated movements from the experimental engines and when the engines are singing, there are one or two that just look... off. Right at the end, the engines just... flop back down when the song ends, and the truck in the above picture swings from one side to the other in about half a second. These are a work in progress, so hopefully they'll become more refined and the team will perfect it, but those two standouts feel really odd.

Overall, the animation is rough around the edges for the most part. But when it's good, it's superb, and you can tell that the animation team did the best they could with all the problems they had. Now that their problems are over though, I'm expecting big things from the team in the future.

New Characters
I'll be looking at the new characters from worst to best. That's not to say that Merlin isn't good, but compared to the others (even Beresford) he's just not that interesting.

To be fair, that's more a fault of the father figure type character; they need something a bit more to be engaging. Sure he's slightly eccentric, but that gets old quickly. If you compare him to someone like Toby, who's also stubborn yet light hearted, and Edward, who's a wise cracking badass, Merlin's just not as interesting.

He's a more effective character when he's with the others, to be honest. They need as much confidence as they can get, and that's where Merlin fits in. I know this will sound cliche, but they need each other to feel complete.

Also, the fact that they called a King Arthur class locomotive Merlin is a really clever, funny way to reference that particular story. Kudos. And getting Hugh Bonneville to voice him was amazing. He's so soft spoken, yet grand. By the way, Huugh's in Paddington 2 as well. There was a trailer before the screening I went in last week and I recommend it. It looks as charming and fun as the first.

This isn't saying much since the only other static crane that's entertaining is Reg, who barely gets any screen time since he's on Edward's branch - a line they refuse to develop now that Tale of the Brave is a thing of the past - but Beresford is my favourite static crane of the show.

He's also the most sympathetic crane of the four since all he really wants is a friend, and while that motivation is similar to Frankie's, it doesn't have the "forced labour" aspect that weakens her justification.

He's also really well voiced by Colin McFarlane. His Caribbean accident is brilliant he has a lot of charisma, but can easily make him seem sympathetic really well.

Lexi's like Marion; you're either going to love her extroverted nature or you'll find it really annoying. Personally, I love it, and that's all down to her voice actress.

Lucy Montgomery has an amazing range of voices, especially for one character. From Scottish to American, to English to male, she nails each one, which is ideal for a character who's either gender fluid or just trying to find her identity through her voice, however you prefer to look at it.

She's also a really genuine character. Yes, she's overbearing at times, but you can tell that she really cares about others, and it feels real. If she's ever seen again, it would be nice to see her be a more gentle maternal figure to Theo. We do see a bit of that in the special, and it made me want more. Hopefully they end up at the steelworks in the reboot so this can be expanded upon.

It's really good that the show has created a female antagonist, the first... ever? And it's also proof, if it was ever needed, how easy it is to create a female villain (just write as though you're making a male villain and make the physical design female).

She's really patronising, clever, cunning and incredibly manipulative, yet she's able to act like that in such a calm, collected way, which makes her feel more dangerous. I honestly think she's a better character than John was purely down to the fact that it was easier to see that John's niceties were all an act.

I just wish that her motives were better explained. It's understandable that her actions were a cry for help when no one else would bother, but we don't know why the help is so important. And that's a shame as that last missing jigsaw piece would've made her the show's first perfect villain.

To cap it all off, her voice actress is absolutely incredible. I'm not sure whether she was hired for her brilliant singing or acting, but Sophie Colquhoun is the complete package. It'd be a shame if she was only heard in this special; I think more could be done with her character. Or maybe there could be an episode where we learn about her partnership with Hurricane?

It''s hard to say whether Hurricane or Frankie are the better characters, but I feel like Hurricane is the most complex and mysterious. We don't really know why he continues to stay with Frankie or how they originally became acquainted, but it makes him much much interesting.

What's even more interesting is that he actually cares about Thomas when things go wrong for him, which heightens the mystery around him even more. Whether it's down to incompetence or whether it was intentional design, Andrew has made one of the most fascinating (actual fascination, not the faux fascination Britt Allcroft thought she'd produced with Lady when it's just a toy-like design with a convoluted backstory and no character to work with) characters of the franchise.

It also helps that Jim Howick was, again, another fantastic casting choice. The sliminess in his voice, and the devious laugh make him feel like an incredibly convincing villain, yet he can easily transition to a soft spoken, caring character effortlessly. He'd honestly voice the best character that the special introduced if it wasn't for...

Theo is the most precious little cinnamon roll of the entire show. I absolute adore him, and I honestly think he's one of my top 10 favourite characters (I'll have to update that list eventually).

He's also the perfect example as to why the movements were a positive step for the show. I don't think he'd be as charming, innocent, vulnerable or loveable as he ended up being if he was just a static model or CG render; he'd probably just end up being yet another nervous character, but his shuddering makes him stand out from the rest. You just want to hug the adorable little guy!

Also, I dare you tell me, stone faced, that him shouting "Thomas!!" in excitement and rushing over to see him when he returns to the yard isn't the most charming, adorable scene in the entire show. Seriously, he's just so sweet!

The final piece of the puzzle is Darren Boyd's tremendous performance. That lisp was really cute and it really fit the character incredibly well. I could gush for days, but for the sake of getting the review done, I'll leave it here. I love him more than pretty much every other character. Except Edward.

New Locations
I quite like the look of the canal and small harbour, and I feel this could be used as a basis should they ever bring the harbour on Thomas' branch line back. That or introduce new branch lines, like the one leading to Kirk Ronan or Norramby.

In the grand scheme of things, it's nothing special. It's kind of bland and, compared to other harbours over the years, it's really empty. But it does the job. It's simple, yet effective. And that's fine by me.

The steelworks, however looks fantastic. It's a shame that the outside looks rather flat due to the lack of actual grass, ballast and whatnot, but the building itself looks brilliant, inside and out. It helped that there was a brilliant song produced to make the place feel enticing, and it does the job perfectly.

Inside, it feels like a proper, industrialised factory. It's also great that they treat it as such too, constantly pointing out how dangerous the slag is. It feels like they're teaching kids that big factories are dangerous and should be approached with caution, which is also good.

This place is just really sad, to be honest. Bland, with very little going on and very little purpose in the story or in relation to the world, it's just a thing that's kind of... there. Was that an intentional design choice? Was it a culmination of the team struggling for time and just throwing something together last minute? Could it be both? The narrative doesn't say anything about it, and it looks incredibly barren, so it's possible that it could be both.

Compare this to Misty Island (yep, I'm going there). That place is indeed a death trap, barely habitable for humans and is home to three of the most annoying characters of the show. But it looks beautiful (even if Nitrogen's animation looks dull compared to Arc/Jam Filled's), it has a purpose (preparing logs for delivery to Sodor and beyond) and it actually feels alive and interesting. Because of that, fans remember the place, even if they're just talking negatively about it. I highly doubt anyone will remember the mainland yard in about a month or so.

Voice Acting
I've already talked about the fantastic acting for the new characters, but even for the existing ones, the voices are still top notch, John Hasler especially. Some fans keep saying "Joseph May's getting better", which is tough to deny. But for me, May started off in a mediocre way and is now passable. Hasler has been fantastic from the start and has still gotten better. His singing is fantastic, and he knows exactly when to emphasise and give more expression to certain words.

Case in point: the delivery of the line "picking up engines with your hook isn't a very nice way to start a conversation either". Joseph May literally rushes through the line with no thought or care about the context of the situation that Thomas is in. Not only does John deliver it with more emphasis, making the line funnier as a result, he actually sounds more frustrated and urgent when demanding Beresford put him down. There are other examples, but that's the most notable one.

James is now voiced by Rob Rackstraw. I honestly like it. Fans are saying "he sounds like the US version only with a British accent". Yeah, that's what happens when the same guy voices the same character in both dubs. It only made sense that the change would happen here, and I think he did a brilliant job. It's a bit of a shame he wasn't replaced earlier, to be honest, but better late than never.

And then there's Rosie. It feels weird to see her with her overhaul, even though she looks so much better than her original design. But her voice is the weirdest aspect. After hearing Teresa Gallagher voicing her during the Nitrogen era, with a younger tone, it's going to be tricky to adjust to an older sounding Rosie voiced by Nicola Stapleton. But... I also rather like it. If her more mature voice leads to a more mature personality, I'll be sold on it completely. But since she only had two lines, it's difficult to come to a final judgement at the moment.

Chris Renshaw proved with The Great Race that he can produce a soundtrack that feels cinematic, even if it wasn't as good as Lost Treasure's award winning soundtrack. This year, he did it again, and produced one that could actually rival the Hartshornes' final effort. It's incredibly atmospheric, well orchestrated and really helps to tell the story brilliantly in its own right.

The songs were also a step up from last year's offerings. While I did like quite a few of those songs, the majority weren't particularly plot relevant. This year, only one felt a bit pointless and I thought all but two (Somebody Has to be the Favourite and The Most Important Thing is Being Friends) were great; The Hottest Place in Town being one of my all time favourites already. They're all well written (even the ones I'm not as fond of), well composed well incorporated into the plot (except Who's Thomas?).

Final Thoughts
This film is full of inconsistencies, continuity errors and plot holes. It has a few pointless scenes, animation that's rough around the edges and, like The Great Race, goes out of its way to bring Percy's character back to where it was before Tale of the Brave. Also, the antagonist's motivations are only half formed.

But... the story itself is pretty good overall, most of the songs are great (The Hottest Place in Town is genuinely one of my favourites ever), the other characters are fantastic, and the themes for Beresford (you can't force people to be your friends), the experimental engines (there's a place for everyone) and Thomas (be careful what you wish for and friends come in all shapes, sizes and places) are all so wonderful that I can look past its numerous flaws and say it's a good special.