Feature: The Strength of the Specials

At the time of my writing this, Journey Beyond Sodor has just debuted in North America and it gave me the inspiration for this post. Going through SiForums, Twitter, the Thomas Wikia and virtually every other place the older fanbase takes refuge, I've noticed a recurring problem that many people have adopted, which I am guilty of myself: we've been judging the latest specials rather critically before they even hit the market. This has resulted in generally mixed feelings by most of us after seeing them the first time; some have thought the newest one their worst fears come to light; others, myself included, have been pleasantly surprised. This isn't the first time it's happened either and our presuppositions can be attributed to any number of reasons both personal and subjective.

In my case, I think it was the slight bit of disappointment perceived after first viewing last year's special, The Great Race, that did me in. Combine that with the poor first trailers for this year's feature, and I wouldn't be the first to say that the specials are going down in quality. But are they actually deteriorating by any noticeable measure, or have we just become accustomed to each special being better than the last and thus being spoiled? To answer this question, we need to look back on where the Thomas franchise has been with its features in years past.

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For the sake of this argument, I will be considering Thomas and the Magic Railroad to be a special same as the others, rather than the typical “feature film” or “movie” designation it receives. I tossed this idea back and forth for awhile before deciding it had to have a voice in this blog, as without it none of the “specials” since then would be what they are. Therefore the list of Thomas & Friends specials/movies will be marked as follows. Most of you reading this will be familiar with these already; this is to recap for those who may have forgotten any of them.

 

“Classic” specials:

1. Thomas and the Magic Railroad (Series 5 special film; 55th Anniversary) “TATMR”

2. Calling All Engines! (Series 8 special, 60th Anniversary) “CAE”

3. The Great Discovery (Series 11 special) “TGD”

 

“Nitrogen” specials:

4. Hero of the Rails (Series 13 special) “HOTR”

5. Misty Island Rescue (Series 14 special, 65th Anniversary) “MIR”

6. Day of the Diesels (Series 15 special) “DOTD”

7. Blue Mountain Mystery (Series 16 special) “BMM”

 

“Arc” specials:

8. King of the Railway (Series 17 special) “KOTR”

9. Tale of the Brave (Series 18 special) “TOTB”

10. The Adventure Begins (Mini-special for 70th Anniversary) “TAB”

11. Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure (Series 19 special, 70th Anniversary) “SLOTLT”

12. The Great Race (Series 20 special) “TGR”

 

“Jam-Filled” specials:

13. Journey Beyond Sodor (Series 21 special) “JBS”

14. TBD (Series 22 special, due 2018)

This film pleased me more than I remember, just as a work completely on its own. In a sense it's the only truly “classic” film of the series and is probably the most polarizing among fans. While we all know the flaws and wish for a Director's Cut, I have to say I think it's better than many have given credit for. It's a shame it would ultimately be the downfall of Britt Allcroft et. al., and for all it got wrong I think it also got a lot right.


I'm glad it gave Shining Time Station a chance to end on a high note (wish the same could be said for TUGS), and it was a fairly clever way to bring the Conductor family into the Sodor universe. These days I wish the production team wouldn't shy away from using source material from this film to influence their newer works; I'd be quite happy to bring back Lady, Splatter & Dodge at any point even if others might be apprehensive.


I'd like to see homage paid to the Conductors also- just a little nod to Starr, Carlin and Baldwin (permanent residents on Sodor these days?) would do their time with the show justice. But then again, maybe I'm just dreaming. The film is cheesy, campy and Alec and the kids really over-acted all of it, but I'm glad it exists. Peter Fonda was by far the best inclusion here, and I hope more people remember it fondly than as something to be ignored.

It's common enough for many of us to claim Misty Island Rescue is the worst special... I disagree. In my opinion, this is the lowest the series has ever gone and probably will stay that way. I mean no offense to anyone involved in the production of CAE, but this special grated me for all the wrong reasons.


The interstitials were an embarrassment that would seem condescending even to the target demographic. The music was bland and forgettable, most of it with short, abrupt endings that felt out of place and didn't tie the story together very well, Michael Brandon's narration was at its poorest point and I could hardly even listen to the film (remember when Mavis had a Western accent? I sure didn't...) and overall, there was very little I felt to be redeemable here.


The best thing I could say about it was that it sort of served as a sequel to TATMR by including Lady and Diesel 10, but even that is iffy as their characters were really cheapened for this special. There are reasons I hardly watched this one until now, and I'll be watching it even less in the future.

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This special, while improving on Calling All Engines, didn't seem as noteworthy as I remember it. While it's not exactly bad, it's more poor in the absence of much good to say about it. In short, it's boring. Maybe that's due to Pierce's narration putting the audience to sleep (while still being preferable to Michael B., mind you) or the only newbie being oversold and having poor development to build on, but The Great Discovery just didn't hold my attention very well at all.


That being said, I do hope Stanley is used more fully moving forward... why not make him the pilot at Great Waterton, which seemed to be built up with this special anyway? They started something and never finished it; now the team at Jam-Filled might have that chance.

Hero of the Rails is unique in Thomas history as, like Thomas and the Magic Railroad, it got the franchise started again in a new medium for a new generation. Magic Railroad may have started the films, but Hero started the CGI era. Looking back, I liked this one a bit more than I recalled. Yes we can talk about Hiro’s backstory or the misaligned history of Sodor, but that's been discussed plenty elsewhere.

 

What stands out more positively are the well-fleshed-out character introductions, unique musical cues which often are forgotten about, and a relatively strong story with a sufficient climax to match it. HOTR is by no means perfect and there's a lot that can be redone with it, but for starting out the new era I think it achieved its goal quite well. Though I do wish the new team would figure out what to do with Hiro instead of just making him a mainland engine in order to mask his original story... use that Japanese origin to your advantage.

I don't like the idea of having to defend this film on account of how much it tarnished Awdry's work, but I will do so in a limited way. By all accounts, Misty Island Rescue is not a good film, though it does have some unique elements to it, rhyming and tomfoolery aside. Misty Island itself is fabulously rendered and I'd actually like seeing it again in newer, cleaner graphics, though with a lot of serious reformation done to infrastructure and geography. It's not a terrible concept in this universe, but it has to be handled more tactfully than just being a random satellite a few miles away.

 

The newbies' designs were certainly unique and brought a bit of Americana to the brand not seen since Thomas and the Magic Railroad, but again, if they were brought back they'd need to be whipped into shape. I find it rather telling that out of every character so far introduced in CGI from Hero of the Rails / Series 13 through the present, Dash, Bash & Ferdinand are the only three not to receive any screentime at all once McCue, Brenner and co. took the reigns. Ferdinand's random cameos and use on a poster hardly count; I'm talking of actually doing something substantial with them. It tells me that the current producers are as keen to distance themselves from Misty Island and its inhabitants as most of the fans are.

 

Even generally disliked characters like Charlie, Captain, Scruff etc. have been used to greater value. My advice (and this won't sit well with some, this is just my own opinion): bring the logging trio back, but fix every error given to them. Fix their awful personalities, cut the spontaneous laughing, make Ferdinand realize not everything is right, and generally give them the Awdry treatment: every engine can be redeemed as long as they are willing to atone for their mistakes. I still think there's potential for them even if they came from one of the show's lowest points.

For being the first special to not have Thomas as the protagonist, Day of the Diesels just feels like it wanted to be better than it actually is. This special suffers from the same problems as The Great Discovery – namely, it's boring at best. There were some mildly enjoyable points and equally loathsome drags (the diesels trashing the Steamworks made no sense even with who they are as characters), though I consider it slightly superior to the previous year's work.

 

It's a shame it had to accompany Series 15, which I haven't even bothered watching all of because of how terrible it was just after one or two episodes. The best thing I can say about Diesels is that it was slightly self-aware; Topham's line about “some things are worth waiting for” was very clearly directed at older fans like us. It's as if the film is saying, “Yes I know I'm rubbish, but you don't have to put up with me for long”.

It's no secret in the hills that this is objectively the strongest Nitrogen-animated special. While nowhere near perfect, Blue Mountain Mystery was the first time some of us had hope in the show's future in years.

 

The Talyllyn-designed SR engines were great (not wild about all their faces though particularly Rheneas and Rusty, but whatever), Luke was a gem and his history, complete with Irish theme music, were nuggets of goodness that the series often lacks even now, and while the ending was a bit weak, the story was stronger than Hero of the Rails was and would sit among many fan's favorites just for narrative power alone. Mystery absolutely has more pros than cons and while we're far past what it achieved by now, it set the show back on the right path and did exactly what it needed to.

Forget the wonky animation as Arc was just getting their footing at this time, and King of the Railway is still a mixed bag. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it and view it as superior overall to Blue Mountain Mystery, but the biggest drawback here was that the story was all over the place. I welcome any and all chances we have to explore Sodor's history and lore, and Stephen's talk of the Rainhill Trials and real railway practice are a goldmine; however it seemed as though the plot wasn't sure how to tell itself.

 

Later specials have picked up on this weakness and fixed it with stronger flowing narratives, but I can't be too critical because, like the special before it, there are overall more positives than weaknesses here which deserve recognition. It may not be the best we've seen or Mr. Brenner's strongest writing, but for essentially starting the second portion of the CGI era completely from scratch, it again does its job quite well.

This film routinely comes up in many fans' list of favorites and, while not personally my own fave, certainly deserves credit. This is the first special where the lead role is shared nearly evenly between three characters with Percy and Thomas playing protagonist and deuteragonist, and James playing antagonist. It has a rather emotionally-driven story driving it forward, significantly improved animation from the year before, and a host of other positives to say about it.

 

While I could have done without the penultimate climax of Cranky nearly pulling a “Big Mickey” moment and Thomas receiving no reprimand for it, that is just another “what could have been” scenario. Tale of the Brave leads into the 70th Anniversary in a strong way, but in no manner seeks to overshadow the two films that would come after it. This film knew its place and served its role reasonably well in getting us to where we needed to be emotionally for what was to come.

I can't even begin to explain the feelings of pure joy I had when I first saw this mini-special on the day of its release. We all know what it meant for us. It's one of only two specials I can watch on autopilot and enjoy even to this day, the other being Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure; all the others I can only appreciate once in awhile or once in a long, full moon for the weakest ones... while not perfect, I'm not going to criticize it.

 

The Adventure Begins is easily one of the best Thomas specials, or possibly the best depending on your own opinion. None of us saw it coming, but everyone reading this can say (and I make this bet with relative certainty), that they are glad for its existence. Please, Mr McCue and co., more like this. We will do anything you want if it means more Railway Series specials. I'll never criticize the franchise again if it means this can get a sequel or two or three or seventeen.

Insofar as the series has any sort of objective goal to reach for what can be considered “the best”, I'd have to say that this is it. If not, it's pretty damn close toward any sort of perfection for a children's franchise like this. While The Adventure Begins blew us all out of the water, Lost Treasure managed to top even that in how mind-blowing it is. Not perfect (looking at you, unnecessary Henry subplot) but who cares?

 

For a special designed for such an important anniversary year, it hit nearly every benchmark. Railway Series characters? Check. Spinoff characters? Check. Star-studded celebrity cast? Check. Continuity from last special? Check. RWS/TVS references? Check. Classic theme music? Check. Live orchestra with phenomenal new songs? Check. Not to mention absolutely phenomenal imagery (particularly in the climax) and Thomas nearly getting destroyed or blown up SEVERAL TIMES. This is the only non-classic special that, to me, feels like an honest-to-God Thomas *film* instead of just an extended episode.

 

Journey Beyond Sodor comes close due to the longer running time, but Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure and Thomas and the Magic Railroad are the only two that feel like they really deserved the title of “theatrical feature film” by every measure. Honestly I hope something can beat Lost Treasure for me in terms of “close to perfection” some day, but I don't expect it to happen again until the 75th Anniversary if we're lucky. I hope I'm wrong and something comes along to top this, but the bar has been set so high with this film that everything else may seem a bit weak in comparison for a long time to come. Matter of personal opinion, of course.


Following on from a phenomenal anniversary year, The Great Race was equally as ambitious in its attempt to introduce 13 new characters at once in a story inspired by the 2016 Olympics. And while TGR is great in many ways, I have to agree with many others who have previously criticized it for not being as good as the 2015 specials.

 

The Great Race had good ideas behind it, but the execution was muddled, I expect as a result of a heavy production schedule spelling trouble for the film in addition to Series 20, Journey Beyond Sodor, Series 21 and everything else coming down the pipe. The stunt with Thomas and the bridge has been hammered heavily elsewhere, but my biggest beef with the film is that the ending was rushed and the story hardly focused on racing for more than two minutes or so.

 

If the film had been titled “The Great Railway Show”, that would have made a lot more sense as it's hardly about racing at all. But rather than go off wholly on what I'd have done differently about it (Gordon should have been the driving character for one thing), I'll admit that in some ways the animation, music and new characters were more unique than what we saw in Lost Treasure and I can't be too hard on it. For being so rushed as it was, Brenner and his crew did a reasonably good job with this film even with its faults.

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Now we're up through today in 2017. I started this post off by saying that I think it was wrong of some of us to judge this work before we saw the final result, and I'll stand by that claim. Journey Beyond Sodor, while different from most of what we've seen elsewhere, is a good film. Not completely great in my opinion, but much better than expected. Jam-Filled Entertainment treated us with animation much smoother than was given in the transitionary King of the Railway when Nitro passed their assets to Arc, and even with the blunders here I expect by next year JFE will be sufficiently strong enough to be even better than their predecessor.

 

The swaying characters, as much as I'm not a fan, are necessary for the franchise to stay alive and I don't think it's as bad as we first expected. They're still not at Chuggington levels nor will they be. The music was unique with only one song I was kind of “meh” about, the extra running time really helped fill in the story better (I wish The Great Race had received this treatment), and it's definitely the darkest the series has ever been.

 

The tone was shown nicely and I really appreciate the production team trying those heavier themes, and between this and Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure I'm frankly amazed they can get away with some of the bold moves they've made (here's to hoping P. T. Boomer gets his time in the light one day). Frankie reminds me of a more well-rounded, less cartoonish Diesel 10, the other newbies are all delightful to get to know, and as with several other specials, my biggest complaint is the rushed ending.

 

Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure was unique in that it built up to its climax in a very organic way, but here as with films like The Great Race, Blue Mountain Mystery, Day of the Diesels and a few others, the ending feels tacked on and abrupt. While the animation is gorgeous throughout the final Steelworks scenes, Frankie breaking down in tears was a weak move for her character. That's honestly my biggest complaint here, not the extra movements or the glitchy animation; those can be fixed. But deliver a weak ending, and it can be the downfall of your story. Still it's better than I thought it would be and I'm sure the SiF Review will have loads more to talk about with this film.

The point I'm trying to make here with all of these is that, whichever specials are your favorites or whatever you think are best and worst, each of these works has something unique about them. They can all bring something different to the show's canon and even if they aren't always very good at something at first, can form the foundations for something great later. Calling All Engines, for example, had elements that were used later on with better results the second time, e.g. the suspension bridge collapsing and being rebuilt in Slow Stephen. We may disagree on what constitutes “good” or not, but our opinions are just that.

We should be happy these works exist in any form at all, if for no other reason than they help keep our favorite childhood show alive, and reinvented for new generations of children long after we've had our fun. Our kids may never watch the same specials that we grew up with. 5-year-olds who started with Hero Of The Rails are already teenagers. And the specials may continue long after they or we have any involvement with them, so while our concerns about certain works or elements will be heard and paid heed, one day it won't matter what we said or what a special did. What matters is how it makes us feel and the enjoyment we have.

Let's be practical for a moment. While the Thomas& Friends brand is huge, it won't last forever. It may end in our lifetimes, or it may find new ways to continue on in new mediums perhaps past the 100th Anniversary or even longer. Does the series have 150 in it? Doubtful, but as long as it can stay fresh, never say never.

The specials aren't going downhill; Messrs. McCue, Winters, Brenner, Wilkinson and everyone else are continuing to deliver fantastic work. Have faith in them. After awhile these specials become irrelevant for the same reason that our original childhood special, Magic Railroad, is irrelevant: there are bigger and better ideas to explore. I'm not here to tell you what to believe about JBS or any of the films moving forward. All I ask is that for the sake of the series we all grew up with, we remember what makes the show great in the first place and continue to support it even if we may not always like it. However many specials there are, however long the seasons go, we can be there for Thomas and his friends same as they've been there for us.