(This is going to be one of those grumpy old men, shaking his fist at the absurdity of the modern world kind of posts. Fair warning.)
I have always had a soft spot for Thomas, the cheeky little British steam engine who will often cause quite a fuss for Sir Topenhat and the other residence of the Island of Soddor. His adventures are simple enough. One week he would be in a hurry to get his yard work done early and his loud bashing and clanging will disturb the poor people waiting in the passenger terminal, the next week he would be perhaps a bit over confident and would try to pull one too many cars up Gordon’s Hill. There will always be some small disaster, perhaps a runaway car or a spilled load, but in the end all is be fine and Thomas will have learned an important lesson about being polite and knowing your limits. (this is after all, a British show.) It is all very charming and very hard not to fall in love with.
Perhaps what most drew me to Thomas originally was the wholly unique and wonderful animation technique the creators used to bring these engines to life. Essentially, The Island of Sodor was a glorified model railroad. Little spray painted sprigs of dried moss dotted the landscape along long, winding stretches of hand-laid model track. Beautiful metal engines would chug along spewing wonderfully out of scale fountains of steam from their little boilers.
If all this sounds like the wistful ramblings of a model railroad geek, you would be correct. I cannot deny that much of my love for the show’s stylistic qualities comes from my own love of model railroading. Yet there was more to it than just that. Because of the “model-like” quality of the show, no real motion was ever shown outside of trains moving forwards and backwards along the track. The human characters stood stoic as simple little wood-cut forms. A figure of the train conductor waving at children as he passed by a school yard would be replaced with a second figure of the train conductor with his hands back on the controls in a second shot. The train engines themselves would have little grey faces on them who’s eyes could move around freely, but again, much like the the rest of the world, expression changes happen between shots.
On top of all of it, each and every character was voiced by one person; A storyteller named “Mr. Conductor” who would narrate the adventures of Thomas and his friends. Throught the years, Mr Conductor would be played by several famous personalites including Ringo Starr, George Carlin, and Alec Baldwin.
This simple stylistic approach to the storytelling not only gave the show a great deal of charm, but also allowed for great freedom and flexibility within the mind of the viewer and frankly, a story about a railroad told through the art of model railroading is really a no brainer.
Which is why the recent (ok, it’s been a while now, but it’s been weighing heavy on my heart for a while now.) switch to a full CG Thomas the Tank Engine is really very sad. Gone is the simple charm that made the show such a joy to watch. Instead we now have yet one more slick, 3D animated kids show with a bunch of talking characters performing in a really pretty virtual world complete with complex camera moves and all the other amenities that Computers can offer.
My kid likes it though, so who am I to complain?