Well, here I am - Ready to write a review about something that's strictly for the kiddies. Well, almost. As a parent to a 13 month old myself, I can empathize with any parent who's had to sit through countless hours of children's programming. Sure, we might not be the target audience, but we're ultimately the ones that have to put up with what our kids love to watch. If we have to endure, then we may as well subject them to programming that we can enjoy ourselves, right? Right. So, when I found an opportunity to review the Thomas & Friends - Action Pack DVD, I was pretty stoked. I mean, to effectively mix business with family is a real joy, especially when it's with my little guy. Upon receiving this set however, I immediately found that we had been mislead. The Thomas & Friends portion of the title doesn't pertain to just the show Thomas & Friends. Instead, it's a four disc set that includes two discs worth of Thomas, whereas the final two discs feature Bob the Builder and a character I've never heard of, Fireman Sam. But you know what? I figured this was the perfect opportunity to open my son up to more than just Thomas, Mickey, and Sid the Science Kid, and see what other shows we could potentially enjoy together on a regular basis. So, in a way, you can sort of say that this review is going to be based on how my son feels about the shows - If he sits down and his attention can focus on something for 10 minutes or more, I'd say it's a success. If he'd rather play with his shoelaces and crawl off into the other room to try and find mommy however, well, you know... not so good. Anyways, let's get to it!
Again, the first two discs are strictly Thomas & Friends, and between these two discs (Track Stars and Steamies vs. Diesels), there's close to 90 minutes of entertainment. Now, I won't go into explicit detail about every episode, but in case you're unfamiliar with Thomas & Friends, you should really get yourself acquainted with it soon. Sure, you may prefer the Disney Channel over PBS due to the familiar branding, but Thomas and his pals, who chug along on the Island of Sodor, have been entertaining children for as long as I can remember. Basically, every episode follows a similar formula - A certain character is usually given a task to perform, has a challenge or obstacle to overcome, or sets out to do things on their own with their heart in the right place, which unfortunately leads to numerous mistakes that makes Sir Topham Hatt (ruler of the railways) very 'cross'. Of course whatever the issue seems to be, the character is able to use problem solving to work through their issue, and the resolution always leads to some sort of moral lesson. I have to say, I really like the format of the show. In a way, it teaches kids that they are not the center of the universe, as many episodes do not actually center around Thomas. For example, in the episodes presented on these two DVD's, Emilee, Percy, James, and even Really Useful Steamie get plenty of screen time. Another thing that's great about the format of this show, is that it doesn't rely on flashy gimmicks in order to hold the attention of a child. It tells a story by using repetition - A character may make a mistake over and over again, and when Sir Topham Hatt makes them correct those mistakes, we see them corrected one at a time, and the moral of the story is eventually spoken aloud. The kids just love seeing the beautiful scenery that the Island of Sodor has to offer, the occasional song, and of course, watching the engines huff and puff in an almost majestic way. We see all of the above mentioned implemented in episodes where Emily has trouble delivering her passengers, Thomas is speeding along at unsafe speeds, Percy has made some mistakes, and with probably the best moral lesson of all, the Steamies and Diesels have to set aside their differences and realize they're really not so different. My son loved watching these first two discs (in small chunks, of course), and I was intrigued by how these life lessons are being presented to my son. It's a win-win!
Next, on the third disc, is Bob the Builder - Heavy Duty Diggers, and clocks in at around 46 minutes of 'can we fix it' fun. Now, I wasn't familiar with the original non-CGI show, and obviously neither was my 13 month old. However, we both found the CGI version of Bob the Builder to be a blast. Now, although my son has always had a thing for toy trucks and the like, now that he's been able to see some bulldozers and dump trucks up close and in-person, he took to the show like he'd been watching it since the day he was born. He was really excited when the Bob the Builder theme song would play (which I have to admit is rather contagious), and he would smile whenever one of the trucks would do something cool. As far as how I felt about what was being presented to him in the show, I had no problem with it. Much like the format for Thomas & Friends, whatever happens in these episodes usually ends with one of the characters shining through. What's nice about this collection of Bob episodes when compared to the Thomas ones in this set, is that the overall message is different. Instead of teaching us lessons like 'you shouldn't run too fast' or 'I should have listened', this show focuses on telling children that they should embrace whatever talents they have. Although people are all more or less the same and should be treated equally, everyone is still special in their own way because of the talents they have to offer. This teaches my kid that he's special because of his unique talents, not 'different', and that his talents go a long way when working as part of a team. My son and I hadn't watched this show before now, but I'll start DVR-ing it so we can watch it on a regular basis!
Last but not least is Fireman Sam. As I mentioned earlier, I've never heard of this show, but it's actually pretty cool. It's bright and colorful, and there's always something happening - Sam performs a rescue via helicopter in the midst of a forest fire, uses rescue dogs to find missing persons, and so much more. The best part is that while he's doing all of these courageous things, he's dropping a plethora of fire safety tips, and much like Bob the Builder, teaches the importance of teamwork. The show is exciting, fun, colorful, educational, and provides good moral values to boot. This seemed like a 'no name' kind of a release to me, but my son and I are now fans of Fireman Sam. We hope to see more of him in the future! After all, it's refreshing to see some tribute paid to some real heroes (firemen) with our toddlers!
Overall, this is a great collection, and a great 'gateway' release. This 4 pack can be had for a very decent price, so you can test the 'television show' waters with your child, and the both of you can decide together what you like, and what you should stay away from. I really can't give a non-recommendation to any of the shows in this set however, so the downside here is you may end up spending a fortune on DVD's from all three of these properties! It's worth it though, because from my own personal experience in watching these with my son, he was intrigued, and I never found any of the shows contained within this 4 disc set to be annoying or present poor values to my child. The only other thing I'd warn you about, is that if your child is used to seeing the new CGI Thomas episodes, proceed with some slight caution, as the episodes on the first two discs here are from the older show. Regardless, if this hasn't been enough of a shining recommendation from one parent to another, then I don't know what is!
Each of these discs are better than expected in their 1.33:1 full screen picture. I was expecting a lot of ugly aliasing, some ugly macroblocking, and perhaps even some edge enhancement in order to make these discs 'look better' and 'sharper' for the kids. Fortunately, each disc actually looks quite nice on the big HDTV in our living room, and although my son couldn't care less about the picture quality, 'daddy' was able to sit with him and not flinch at the picture every few seconds. The image is naturally sharp and impressive enough for DVD, there's no obnoxious digital noise, and the color and contrast are really as impressive as the source allows them to be. Honestly, after seeing these DVD's, I can understand why parents might opt for buying the cheaper DVD's instead of adding Blu-rays to their kids collection. You can get your kids more to watch that way, and you don't have to break the bank or suffer a loss of quality to do it!
Although my expectations were exceeded in the video department, I can't say the same for the audio. Don't get me wrong, because I'm not saying the audio is bad. It's just about what I expected for these kids shows. Every disc is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital, and doesn't sound bad. The dialogue is always crisp and clear, the music never seems to really suffer due to the encoding... there's really nothing harsh about these soundtracks at all. They serve their purpose and they serve it well, but never go above and beyond. And honestly, I wouldn't want any of these titles to provide any 'oomph' in my living room. Don't need to frighten my kid and accidentally have him fall over or something...
Almost every disc provides a little extra something, which again, surprised me. I wasn't really expecting anything, but there are games, songs, and more:
Disc 1 - Thomas & Friends: Steamies vs. Diesels
-"Steamie Stumpers" Trivia Game
-"Sodor Sounds" Game
-"Steamie or Diesel?" Game
-Songs & More
Disc 2 - Thomas & Friends: Track Stars
-"Sodor Activity Depot" DVD-ROM
-"James' Colors of Sodor"
-"Thomas' A-Mazing Adventure"
Disc 3 - Bob the Builder: Heavy Duty Diggers
-"Ready, Steady, Build!" Music Video
Disc 4 - Fireman Sam: Help Is Here!
The price is great, and the shows are great. Not only that, but the episodes are fun, not crazy 'over the top', educational, and pack a lot of replay value. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the video quality was as pristine as it was for what one would expect to be a minimalistic release, and I was especially pleased to see some music and games included to keep the little one occupied a bit. Now, if only these games could teach them how to use the remote without abusing it... ah well, no matter. The point is, you really can't go wrong with this 4 disc collection! Highly Recommended!