Thomas & Friends: Hero of the Rails - The Movie:
Well, it's finally come to this; yours truly is going to give an overly critical review to a Thomas the Tank Engine DVD. This is not because I don't like kids DVDs. It's not due to a vendetta against Hit Entertainment. It's because kids deserve better than this, and so do their parents, the parents who were actually looking forward to this movie. I love Thomas, I really do, but Hero Of The Rails falls short on counts that matter to both kids and adults.
As with the last Thomas movie, The Great Discovery, we find Thomas doing something he shouldn't (getting competitive with another engine) which leads to a discovery. In the first movie Thomas busts through some foliage to find a mysterious abandoned town. In Hero Thomas busts through some foliage to find a mysterious abandoned engine named Hiro. In a misguided attempt to save Hiro from the scrap yard, Thomas keeps him hidden, especially from his new nemesis Spencer, a fancy engine brought to the Isle of Sodor to serve royalty. Regardless of its positive moral message, Hero from this point on plays out like an episode of The Brady Bunch, as Thomas continues to hide Hiro from Spencer - despite the other engine's desire to figure out what's happening - until such time as it's revealed that Hiro is actually a very valuable, indeed a very useful engine.
That's a whole lot of nothing for a short kids' movie, one that plays out lacking innovation or interest, and one that's far too talky for kids. In addition to those fundamental deficiencies, Hero incorporates a number of changes in presentation, none that will please Thomas traditionalists. (Yes, I know this is a kids' DVD, and unless they're being irrationally particular they like everything.) Plus, the special new song commissioned for this release really stinks compared to "Thomas, You're the Leader." In short, this is feels like a hurried, new-school cash-grab.
How apt is Hero to keep your kids enthralled? Barely. My girl spends a whole lot of time jumping on the couch (not out of delight, mind you) as Thomas and friends go back and forth into the woods, slowly rehabilitating the derelict engine while discussing loneliness and the merits of patience - it's gripping stuff. Meanwhile, in the form of a sleek new engine named Spencer, Thomas finds an actual enemy (I reckon the first one he's ever faced). Do kids really need this conventionality? Thomas' appeal has always been the fact that his adventures basically key on typical pre-adolescent interactions. Now, instead of Thomas refusing to act on his peers' advice, for instance, he spends time fending off an engine who bears him ill will. Hero even has plot holes (Spoiler Alert): Hiro, the derelict engine, turns out to be well known to all of Sodor as 'The Master of the Railway.' If the train's so damn important, how did it become so intractably lost and ignored?
Not that your kid is going to care too much about that - literally and figuratively - but while you're trying to keep your kid focused, you might be annoyed at the stylistic changes. Hero features Thomas' traditional narrator, but adds new voice talent for the characters. Adult viewers will likely be turned off by this move away from the storytelling motif towards spoon-fed TV entertainment. Additionally, this 1.78:1 ratio widescreen movie touts full CG animation. No longer will actual model train cars roll through miniaturized environments. Now Thomas is just another computer cartoon. Even Sir Topham Hatt is free to walk around, moving his mouth as he speaks. The old ways are dying, people. (This won't trouble your kids either.)
Surprisingly, Hero is presented in 1.78:1 ratio widescreen, further distancing itself from its noble past. Also surprisingly, the picture looks pretty good. Intense searching turned up little aliasing and only very minor posterization. Not a bad feat for animation featuring plenty of long, straight rails and clouds of steam and smoke. Details are fine, but backgrounds are consistently blurred to simulate film focus. Colors are by nature less rich and natural than in old episodes with real props.
Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Audio Tracks are available. The 2.0 track plays standard, the 5.1 track is a selectable option. Both tracks seem to sound fine, with a little bit more activity in the 5.1 track. Audio is distortion-free and mixed well.
Closed Captioning and Spanish and French Audio Tracks are available, as well as a lame game, an even lamer game, a sing-along track, and a really weird, aimed-at-parents extra. "Thomas & Spencer" Racing Game tempts your kids to quickly punch buttons on the remote while discerning the difference between three words (I know, not as easy as it sounds for a 3-year-old). "Who's Pulling Into the Station?" Game is really just a narrated series of clips as varying engines pull into the station. "Go Go Thomas" Karaoke Music Video is self-explanatory - the song is still lame, too. Thomas & Friends Bedroom Makeover is a sequence from the Designing Spaces cable TV show, little fun for kids, not likely to inspire parents to take on the project.
Featuring a number of modernizations including new voice talent and all CG animation, plus a weak plot that isn't punchy or simple enough for preschoolers, Hero of the Rails feels like a poorly-thought-out extension of the series, designed simply to introduce a new format and score some cash. Even though your kids won't be so particular, this Thomas is substandard for them, and for you. Rent It if you're curious.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com