SODOR ISLAND Essay Annex

Thomas Vs. Chuggington

Steam Team VS Chuggers

Both want to rule the rails - but who's really got the edge to shunt the other into the sidings?

Currently, Chuggington is fighting hard to shunt Thomas into the sidings.  There are similarities between the two brands – they both have trains and railways as their main premise, in terms of merchandising they both gravitate to the same style of manufacture (particularly with die-cast models), and both are bright, colourful children’s shows which vie for the attention of the audience.

However, the differences between the brands also set them apart.  Within this essay, I’m going to compare and contrast the components that make up the two rival shows, looking at their settings, characters, premises, storylines, production and most importantly, the quality of the writing associated with the two brands.

The worst thing about first impressions is that you only get to make one.  Initially, I was very wary of Chuggington.  I had attempted to watch an episode of it previously, and had been left somewhat cold and unconvinced by it.  However, this was back when Thomas and Friends was still running as a model animation production – and I was not inclined to CGI at all.

 

I had always been intrigued by the differences between Thomas & Friends and Chuggington.  However, having never watched any episodes of Chuggington in full, I could not make an informed opinion and chose to believe that the series was somewhat inferior to Thomas, given what I had been hearing from other people.  But when Series 15 of Thomas and Friends aired, and left a very bitter taste in the mouth of the faithful older fans, I knew the time was right to explore the other side of the fence.  Through BBC iPlayer, I downloaded the six episodes of Chuggington which were available at the time for that week long period, and began drafting up a review, convinced I was going to loathe what I saw... I was surprised to say the least.

Brand History

Wilson at the depot

The interesting thing to note is that Chuggington and Thomas share a similarity here.  Chuggington is the product of three former HIT employees who broke away to form their own company, Ludorum.  Chuggington was the company’s first developed product, and was initially touted by them as a contender to ‘shunt Thomas into the sidings’.  As a brand new production, however, Chuggington lacks the intriguing backstory that Thomas does.

Thomas's first appearance

Thomas, however, isn’t the product of a ‘creative team’.  He and the original stories are drawn from the love between three generations of a family.  A father passing on the love of steam and railways to his son, and in turn, the same story repeating itself, but with far more creative results when the Rev Awdry nursed his son through measles with three simple, but moral, railway stories to keep him amused.  The story progresses somewhat with the urging of a wife to seek publication, an editor who is so enthralled and encapsulated by the work being produced that he commissions a new book every year for nearly 30 years, the torch being picked up by the same son for whom the original stories were intended, and later grabs the attention of people in media who help maximise its full marketing potential on a global scale.

Voice Actors

James

Thomas & Friends retains links to its past through the inclusion of Michael Angelis and Michael Brandon as the storytellers for the series, subsidising the UK and US casts for the English dubs of the series.  The main cast of voiceovers for Thomas are all experienced and well-versed vocal talents, capable of a wide array of voices that will be needed throughout the series, some have even diversified into splitting themselves between the UK and US dubs for the series.

Emery

Chuggington’s cast for the main characters consists of three children, and it suits the characters very well.  These characters are essentially children, and therefore, can be related to as such.  The more adult characters are voiced by elder voice-actors, and therefore, everything ‘sounds’ just as it should, and in all honesty within the UK dub at least, it sounds very natural.

 

Both casts are hugely capable, they give their individual series life and are hugely talented people.

Animation

Chuggington’s stunning ‘cinema-quality’ CGI cannot be argued with in terms of quality, and could easily rival that of Nitrogen Studios’ production values.  However, it serves a totally different purpose to what Nitrogen are instructed to do by HIT Entertainment.

Toy Tank Engine Thomas - Detailed Charlie...

Whilst both series deal with talking trains, the design of the characters are very different.  Keeping in tradition with the values of old, any new Thomas and Friends characters are developed directly from real life locomotives, and the designs are followed stringently to create a locomotive which mirrors it’s real life counterpart.  This is particularly true of the newer designs that Nitrogen Studios are responsible for under their own steam, such as Charlie, Hiro and Scruff, who are far more detailed in appearance than the model designs that have existed since the series began.  Thomas, Edward, Henry, Gordon, James and Percy still retain their ‘toy-like’ appearance out of faith to the originals, built by Clearwater Features in 1983.

In Chuggington, there appears to be greater creative license taken deliberately.  Whilst the characters are based on real life locomotive designs, they are often manipulated into a more ‘cartoonish’, toy-like fashion, tying in with the nature of the series.  It doesn’t try to take itself too seriously, it looks fun, it feels fun and it acts fun – from the looks of things too, the voice actors, writing staff and animators are clearly having fun with it as well!

Chuggington human design

However, Chuggington does better Thomas and Friends in one area with its character designs – the human characters.  These actually look and feel like real people, and they are fascinating to look at in terms of their looks facially, builds, heights and weights, and it adds real depth to the series.  It could be argued that Nitrogen have been working to a precedent with Thomas – for nearly 25 years, the human characters were simply figurines, and to maintain the ‘look’ of the old series, they have developed the people in the series to match this style, whilst also adding ‘life’ to them at the same juncture.

Zephie gets in a spin

The Chuggington characters are far more ‘animated’ than what the Thomas characters are – they leap and bound off the rails, move their entire bodies in a humanistic fashion and in more extreme cases... fly and spin their entire bodies around!  In some cases, it’s very fun to watch, and on a personal basis, I can see why this would appeal to children.  It’s exciting, it’s flash and there’s always something happening visually, which is either simply amusing or worth observing.  The direction is also faster paced, and quite often, it’s like being taken on a trip into a simulator as you are spun around a railway yard at high speed as the camera runs around to capture the action!

Not just the children who are along for the ride

Given historical precedent, Thomas cannot be afforded the same luxury.  The stories have always been about engines working on a railway, and whilst Thomas and his friends have the ability to talk and think for themselves, they are still animated as machines – which makes it all the more jarring when the humanistic tendencies that the writing staff shoe-horn in are exaggerated, which quite often leave the Driver and Fireman in the cab virtually redundant – they might well be ‘Driving’, but the engine is in complete control of the situation – they’re just along for the ride.

However, Director Greg Tiernan is constantly striving to improve the visual element of the series, using angles that the model crew could never hoped to have got, and developing the realistic atmosphere of the show, which sets it apart again from Chuggington.

Setting

The two vary hugely in this respect.  Whilst Sodor is designed to resemble that of a real railway and a real world in a bygone age, Chuggington is a mixture of a toy-like world surrounded by real world fittings in the modern age. 

Chuggington Depot

Chuggington is a bright, bustling modern metropolis, with opportunities for the characters to go beyond that and into the countryside, which can vary from a set of lush green rolling hills akin to those of the British isles to breathtaking rocky gorges, which would be more prevalent within an American landscape.  We can therefore deduce that Chuggington is placed within a ‘global’ setting, and cannot be pinned down as British, American or Australian, it’s simply diverse.  Having seen the series redubbed for the American audience whilst holidaying in Colorado in 2010, it translates exceptionally well and the series sits well with any accent, language or dialect!  The cast of locomotives is equally as diverse with the three main characters based on British, American and Japanese designs of Diesel locomotive, and living side-by-side with steam, Diesel and Electric locomotives of every ‘re-imagined’ design.

Sodor Engines at Knapford

The Island of Sodor, currently, is thought to represent a time in history when steam was giving way to Diesel traction.  In the 2010 Special, Misty Island Rescue, the calendar shows that it is April 1960 at the time of that event.  Therefore, we have Thomas and the other engines living side-by-side with the Diesel locomotives, with previous hints, undertones, nods or even blatant mentions of a full takeover swept under the carpet.  Sodor in the modern era, is also thought to be an ‘every island’, whilst officially, it is still based off the coast of North West England!  The retconning of canon in the series has seen an engine of Japanese origin become the first locomotive to run on the railway’s metals in the very early days, and seen a logging camp, reminiscent of those from Canada and America rise out of the sea and bob to the surface just three miles south of Brendam Docks.  On a personal basis, it could be argued that the scenery on Misty Island is reminiscent of that found in the Highlands and Borders of Scotland, but this theory is quashed by the style of the wooden buildings, and the locomotives found here...

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The Sodor Steam Team

When HIT Entertainment rebooted the series in 2004, they made a central, core cast of eight characters.  The stories would only ever be about these characters and each would have their role to play in the series.  Edward, once wise and able, was now feeble and weak; Henry, once grumpy, but well meaning, now reverted back to being a hypochondriac; Gordon, whilst boastful and pompous, but now exaggerated; James would continue to be vain, but again, exaggerated; Percy once slightly naive but industrious, was now infantile and stupid; Toby, once confident and able, is now feeble and uncertain; Emily was reminiscent of Lucy from Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, a bossy little girl type, and our star attraction, Thomas, would be the cheeky, friendly little engine who’s overly keen and makes frequent mistakes.  All other characters were secondary focus, and used to drive the stories forward. 

Diesel wants to be 'clapped and cheered!'

The engines are basically that, they are railway engines fulfilling tasks that would be expected of them on a railway in the 1950s and 1960s.  But at the end of the day, the mechanical nature of the storylines means that personality traits hold no bearing on the Island of Sodor these days – you can basically write a storyline first and then slot the character in second.  A prime example of this would be in Diesel’s Special Delivery from Series 14 of Thomas.  Diesel is a notorious trouble-maker, he used to tell lies, cause havoc and demean the steam engines with threats of scrap – here, we see him vying for the attention of children to be ‘clapped and cheered’.  Not only is this a huge departure from the original character who simply wished to dominate, it’s a storyline which is clearly geared toward a more sensitive and child-like character such as Rosie or Percy.

The Trainee Chuggers

Chuggington has three primary characters of Wilson, Brewster and Koko, who are basically children translated into railway locomotive characters.  They interact like children, learn lessons from the older characters within the series, and are genuinely seen to develop and grow as individuals as they take on lessons they have learned and apply them to situations they find themselves in.  A prime example would be in the episode Chug Of War, where Wilson applies a breathing technique learned from Speedy, an older Chugger, to summon strength and get himself out of a difficult situation.

Frostini and Speedy

The older ‘Chuggers’ are also seen to be on hand to help the ‘Trainees’ develop as well.  They are experienced and use that to the advantage of teaching the younger ones how to become a useful part of the Chuggington community.   However, the gimmicky characters are far more plain to see – such as ‘The Great Frostini’, the Diesel in charge of the Ice Cream Factory in Chuggington and ‘Action Chugger’, a famous film-star locomotive with the ability to fly.

Writing

This is the all important aspect of the series.  At present, in order to fulfil a 8.45 minute slot, the Thomas writers are subjected to a formulaic layout for writing their episodes.  The average breakdown of an episode is thus:

Thomas realises he's fouled up on attempt 3

The Storyteller will give us exposition on the ‘Island of Sodor’, the character of the day, location of the day, or what the engines do.  Then we’ll move to the setting where the story is being set-up from, where an Engine X will receive word of a ‘special job’ and given instructions on how to manage said task.  But Engine X is initially satisfied with this task.  But then, Engine X begins to get ‘ideas’ which deviate from the task in hand.  This will either result in him or her either taking a different route or performing three similar actions in a row to amend a problem, sometimes being told not to by Engines A, B and C as they pass him or her by, before realising they haven’t fulfilled their task, they have simply destroyed the product they’re carrying, they’ve upset their friends, they’re lost, or they’ve simply ran late, but the over-arching result will be that there will be consequences when the Fat Controller discovers this.  And so we return to the three visited locations, or we simply collect more produce to replace the ones that have been destroyed through utter stupidity – and because everything can go ahead just a tad behind schedule, all is forgiven!  Heck, we’ll even have a bit of a laugh about it as well if there’s a few idle seconds to spare!

Thomas with the Lion of Sodor

It’s safe, because it’s predictable.  We follow the same character from place to place for the full nine minutes.  It’s their episode, it’s their story, and whilst it would have worked for certain episodes in the classic series of five minutes, here, it’s monotonous and dull.  If you’ve seen one episode of the current Thomas series, you’ve pretty much seen them all.  There’s no interesting subplots being visited to develop the storyline or provide additional humour, it’s just ‘Engine X’ going about his or her work, fouling their task up three times and then putting it all right again. 

Speedy

But it seems that the writers are so strapped for ideas that they need to rely on various gimmicks and padding to see them through to the end of the episode.  There is often a reliance upon catchphrases, rhyming and repetition, the use of the same locations over and over and over again, and in various Series 14 and 15 episodes, the obligatory ‘trip’ to Misty Island...!  Whilst Chuggington is also guilty of having its own catchphrases such as ‘Traintastic’, ‘Chugtastic’ and ‘Honking Horns’, they’re not played to excess in the way in which Thomas’s are in order to replace meaningful dialogue, which could be seen to drive the story forward.

The main problem lies with the fact that it’s so uncreative, it seems a complete waste to have such high-quality CGI in place for such a poorly written production.  We have unreserved praise for Nitrogen Studios, they have given the series a whole new lease of life, and added to the longevity of the brand.  However, their stunning visuals and outstandingly creative direction are being used as a means of covering up the failures of the current series.

Action Chugger

Chuggington seems to follow a completely different strategy.  The storylines are simple, but the focus is not on one sole character throughout, there are subplots throughout which tie together to form one very strong storyline which is both engaging and entertaining.  In the episode Lights, Camera, Action Chugger, within the same ten-minute time-frame that Thomas is subject to, we were bouncing between three different subplots, which drove the story forward.  One was comedic with Emery, the other an exciting journey with Action Chugger, the main and primary focus was on learning and building confidence with Brewster – but all three tied in beautifully together by the end of the episode.  Despite not being a fan of the series, I was kept entertained throughout the ten minutes I was watching because there was something new to grab my attention throughout, and when it all came together as the episode drew to a close, I was totally satisfied that my desire for a good storyline had been fulfilled, and I had received three for the price of one.  Nice one, Chuggington!

Dialogue and Narration

Chuggers conversing

Chuggington has gone without a storyteller from its first airing.  The characters speak for themselves, and the dialogue is meaningful.  Anything that cannot be conveyed through what the characters are saying is brought to life beautifully in the visuals so that children are missing out on nothing.  The conversation style is very realistic and applicable within the real world, particularly when children are likely to be imitating what they are learning through the television set.

Henry at the Docks

On the other side of the spectrum, since Thomas’s move to CGI and a full voice cast, the writing team have taken full advantage of avenues and elements that they could not previously work with convincingly whilst there was a sole storyteller in place.  This means a lot of rhyming, alliterating and repeating from those voicing the characters, and the two actors providing the narrative... and sadly, it still doesn’t work out.

Toby repeats the Rhyme Of The Day

The dialogue, as referenced by Simon Martin in the SiF Blog’s review of Series 15 episodes throughout their airing in March 2011, is very, very unnatural, which can largely be attributed to the insistence of having constant alliteration throughout.  In a typical episode, Engine X will often repeat the same ‘rhyme of the day’ at least three times over as he or she attempts to fulfil his or her task, often as a form of motivation to see the job through, and on occasion, once job is completed successfully on the second attempt following the first failure, the wording will change slightly to reflect the character’s pride. 

Wagon painted blue in a musical moment

There also major issues with narrative as well.  Within Thomas, you will never be afforded any great moments of silence.  When a character has finished speaking or a conversation has ended, the storyteller will often interject inbetween, often with a redundant line regarding how the engine feels, which is already blatantly obvious to the audience, and contributes nothing to the flow of the story, and will often present further examples of poor grammar, which plague the series at present.

Currently, the Thomas writing team seem to be encouraged to use the storyteller flagrantly to pad the limits of the story out to meet the required running time.  The characters will appear on screen, strike up conversation, and then there will be subsequent gaps within the conversation whilst the storyteller fulfils his role.

Moral Value

Troublesome Trucks - James achieves his goal

Thomas has been preaching strong moral values since 1945, however, Awdry, Mitton and Allcroft knew how to pack them neatly into storylines which also screamed entertainment value.  Harking back to the very early days, take the morals embedded into Thomas & Gordon (Don’t be rude to your elders), Troublesome Trucks (Never give up on your on achieving your goals) or even Thomas & Terence (Never judge someone by their looks, but by the content of their character).  Whilst the stories are now thought to be redundant by the current marketing people, they’re still relevant and conveying far stronger morals and better life lessons than the current TV Series. 

Belle realises she's fouled up... predictably!

In the recent episode, Big Belle, we see the new character Belle try to coax Toby into being her friend by engaging in activities which she hopes he will like.  When Toby is too cowardly to tell Belle that he doesn’t want to, he runs off and hides, leaving her oblivious, and when she finds him again, he feebly feeds her an excuse that he’s “old and doesn’t like that”.  Whilst the message being preached here is most likely for children to communicate with their friends, it’s completely lost behind a haze of poorly written storyline, which translates as If someone's trying to be your friend, but you don't like what games they play, just run away - and maybe they'll take the hint and apologise later on!

Toby fouls up AGAIN...

An over-arching problem within the current Thomas & Friends series is that the characters seem to learn nothing.  These particular incidents occur, the engines realise they’ve done wrong and put things right, but they don’t seem to retain the value of the lesson they’ve learned at all, and will repeat the same mistakes time and again in different episodes.  

 

The idea is the same, and all that’s changed is the load, the situation, some of the locations, and maybe it is simply the engine itself that has been changed or substituted!

Wilson & Brewster earn new badges for learning

In Chuggington, the main moral ideas seem to be geared toward having a positive ‘can-do’ attitude.  That you’re capable of anything if you put your mind to it, which is a wonderful moral to put to children as it will boost their self-esteem, encourage them to try harder and make a go of learning new skills which will aid their personal development.  The episodes I have observed as part of this study have taught very positive morals in a very constructive manner – self belief, taking the advice of others and using it effectively, having patience and learning how to deal with jealousy.  These are all life lessons that children will need to learn to see their way through life, and the way they’re portrayed in Chuggington is very transparent.  You’re watching something which is entertaining, but at the same time, the lesson the Chuggers have learned is obvious.  It’s effective storytelling at its best and puts the current stock of Thomas and Friends stories to shame.

Overall Conclusions

Koko VS Harrison!

As a loyal Thomas fan, I went into this blindly fully expecting to rubbish Chuggington.  Having viewed six episodes of the series, I am proud to have been proven wrong. 

 

Quite honestly, this is severely underestimated as a competitor by HIT Entertainment, and they’re going to discover that much to their peril if the standard of writing for the series does not improve dramatically very quickly!  In terms of story quality, they are second to none.  There is always something to engage your interest throughout, they make effective use of their character base, and utilise it to their full potential to create storylines that are humorous, exciting and enjoyable.  The subplots throughout push the running time forward with ease, there’s always something happening within Chuggington, and it doesn’t always have to be focussed upon the ‘Character Of The Day’ – the supporting cast for the series are well represented, well portrayed and well used.

No spotlight for secondary characters...

In Thomas and Friends, the secondary characters are forced to one side, no-one shares the lead role, there are no great supporting roles in Thomas and Friends, and when subplots do occur, they’re usually skirted over lightly by the writer whilst they’re trying to force a 8.45 minute episode out of a character which has zero personality to begin with.

 

In terms of animation and voice-acting they are evenly matched.  Both cast and crew care for their product immensely, and should take huge pride in what they achieve day in and day out for their fans young and old. 

Zephie gets face paint

In terms of the nature of both series, Chuggington may well be cartoonish, but it is by no means ashamed of it, and nor should it be.  It adds to the fun and enjoyment that children must get when they watch this series.  Thomas isn’t as ‘cartoonish’ as its counterpart, but in a bid to relate to its audience, relies far too much on elements that the writers believe they will like – alliteration and rhyming are the prime examples here, but at the same time, the over-reliance upon ridiculous gimmicks such as children’s parties, picnics and storytelling sessions.  In Chuggington, the main characters are children, and they are found to be constantly learning from and observing the ‘adult’ trains as they strive to be the best that they can be.  This value does not translate into Thomas and Friends in its current state at all.

Thomas's writing is stagnating

Chuggington has the basis for very strong development if it keeps going the way it currently is.  Thomas and Friends has been stagnating creatively for eight years under the pressure of a writing format which is ill-fitting for any television programme.  HIT Entertainment have often spurned the concerns of older fans who have questioned this rigid writing format, stating that it’s done for the pre-school market of 2 to 5 year olds.  Somehow, Chuggington is on a mission to reach that same audience as well, and the use of engaging storylines, varying subplots, bright colours and a cast of brilliant characters seems to be working for them...

Brewster, Wilson and Koko

If you haven’t already, check Chuggington out.  Switch off from the realms of railway realism, and see what can be done when talented writing meets outstanding CGI visuals and a stellar voice-cast to boot.  This is basically what Thomas and Friends has the potential to not only be, but also what it has the potential to better.  CGI Thomas & Friends has unlimited and untapped potential, which will never be realised unless this formulaic writing style is removed from the equation.  Chuggington has proven, along with many other children’s shows at present, that there’s nothing wrong with just telling an interesting and engaging story, and it’s no wonder it is gaining the momentum that it is at present.

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Chuggington Official Website

The official website for Chuggington
 

Merchandise Playlist

A playlist compiled with the best toy reviews we could find on YouTube.  With special thanks to LeoKimVideo for his very informative and appropriate videos.
 

Riding The Rails With Chuggington

Chris Signore's own review of Chuggington as part of his Signore Studios Blog.
 

Chuggington at Cbeebies

Chuggington at the UK's Cbeebies Website
 

Chuggington on BBC iPlayer

Watch full episodes of the series on the BBC iPlayer
 

Chuggington On YouTube

See Chuggington related clips on their official YouTube Channel