Thomas and his friends have been around in some way, shape or form longer than I care to admit remembering, because it makes me feel like an old fart. It's been through numerous iterations over the years, beginning as The Railway Series children's books, starting on television in the UK in 1984 as Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, and eventually crossing the ocean to premiere as Shining Time Station in the US, with Ringo Starr and George Carlin starring in bookended live action sequences. Eventually the bookends were dropped in the US and the low angled train set show, shot in 35 mm film, premiered in a half hour format that featured two adventures with Thomas & Friends. The show eventually evolved yet again, ditching the semi-realistic train set look for CGI. A bunch of history, a slew of episodes and direct to DVD/Blu-ray flicks later, and here we are with Thomas & Friends - Day of the Diesels. My son is only a year and a half old, and despite the fact the target audience is children twice his age, he loves watching the trains huff and chuff on the Island of Sodor. He's given the most reaction to (and I have to admit, I thought it was pretty awesome myself) the Misty Island Rescue title that was previously released, because the sights to behold were immensely fun and whimsical. Needless to say, I think both of us were excited to see what Day of the Diesels had to offer, but it unfortunately failed to captivate my 18 month old after multiple attempts of viewing.
A fire breaks out on Sodor, and Thomas and Percy arrive at the scene to provide whatever water from their steam engines they can. Eventually, two new firefighting engines, Flynn and Belle, come to relieve the best-bud engines and finish the job. Thomas is impressed, and starts spending all of his time with the new engines, leaving Percy to feel like he's unimportant without any true friends. Diesel sees the vulnerable Percy and invites him to the Dieselworks to make some new friends, and boy do they make him feel special! Even the evil mastermind Diesel 10 is appreciating Percy's company! The Steamies catch wind of Percy's new affiliation with the Diesels, and are concerned and hurt by Percy's perception that he doesn't have any real friends in the Steamworks. Eventually it's revealed that the generosity of those in the Dieselworks is all part of a plot to take over the Steamworks, and it's up to Percy and Thomas to mend their friendship and make sure they're not booted out of their home.
On paper, the story is pretty interesting, but its execution is questionable at best, as Day of the Diesels has veered away from many of the things that have made Thomas & Friends, and especially the direct-to-home video films so memorable. Whether we're talking about an 18 month old or the targeted 3 year old demographic, children love seeing the gorgeous scenery that the Island of Sodor has to offer. I think the first thing any children's program has to do is visually wow their audience in order to pull them in, and then present a wholesome story that teaches some valuable lessons (after all, you can't expect them to continue watching if something doesn't catch their eye). But, a good chunk of this hour long feature takes place inside the dark and filthy Dieselworks, which feels like an unwelcome and cramped space, and there's not a lot the virtual camera can do in order to change things up. My son wasn't very interested in the Dieselworks, and in fact, he seemed to be a little intimidated by the dark atmosphere and the evil Diesels.
Which brings me to what the biggest issue with Day of the Diesels is - It's most likely too scary for its target demographic. Some children will most likely be fine, but Thomas is enjoyed by children of all ages, not just those that are 3 and up. The Diesels sport twisted facial expressions and speak like true villains, and when combined with the dark atmosphere that the Dieselworks provides, it's a recipe for fright. There are certainly going to be children that aren't affected by this, but the atmosphere that dominates this movie is enough of a reason to at least proceed with caution. If your kid is tough enough to brave the spooky Dieselworks however, there's two things that they probably won't be able to escape - Disinterest and boredom.
Thomas & Friends is a fine brand which involves a ton of likeable engines, but most of them are only given a cameo throughout the flick's entire runtime. This feature pretty much belongs to Percy and Thomas through and through, and this doesn't help push the movie to fare for the better. Percy pretty spends much of the runtime whining about how he doesn't have any real friends, and there's not enough Thomas interjection in the first half hour to tone down Percy's obnoxious habit to do so. Truly a disappointment, as the strengths of Thomas & Friends involves a wealth of colorful trains with equally colorful personalities, but that strength, as well as the shows strength to dazzle us with the sights of Sodor, have seemingly been left in Tidmouth Shed. Hang on to those previous direct-to-video releases, enjoy the magic and lessons they provide, and don't let Day of the Diesels sour the good times you've had with Thomas and his pals in the past.
The 1080i AVC encoded transfer on this Blu-ray (1.78:1) isn't perfect, but it's close enough. As expected with any CGI production, colors are bold and pop off the screen, black levels and contrast are immaculate, and the image is sharp and as detailed as the computer animations allow. Some of the imagery even looks like it's coming right out of your TV screen, but those shots are specifically designed to look that sharp. Most of the textures that are used throughout any Thomas adventure are smooth but loaded with eye-popping color to make up for it. Because the image is 1080i (standard for broadcast), you can see some very, very minor stairstepping if you look close enough, and there's some minor banding in the sky at times. Other than that, this is a fine release in terms of video quality.
I expected the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track to provide a mostly front-heavy experience, and that's pretty much what it does. However, appropriate moments in the film sprinkle sound effects across the entire sound field, surprisingly effective despite how minimal they were. Engines sound full and realistic, the music isn't boisterous but its sound is clean, and the voices/narration are crisp and clear. The mix isn't anything to write home about, but the mix is presented flawlessly in the manner it was designed.
-Game - Fiery Flynn to the Rescue - This is a simple game for the kiddies. All they have to do is use the directional buttons on the remote in order to complete tasks that are meant to build situational comprehension skills and self-esteem. The program is rewarding for the youngsters when they perform well, and goes above and beyond any parent in the face of a child that pushes the same wrong button for about 5 minutes straight - It keeps its temper. Even with my child, I'm not so much into the whole 'simple DVD game' thing, but at 18 months, he sure seemed to enjoy it, despite the fact I had to tell him which buttons to push.
-Karaoke Songs - Day of the Diesels / Hear the Engines Coming - The musical numbers in Thomas & Friends have been an accomplished highlight that both parents and children have enjoyed for some time, and these additions are no different. Catchy, fun to sing and clap (or huff and chuff) to, these latest tunes are sure to be enjoyed by everyone... that is, until you've heard it 18,000 times and can't take anymore. That's not exactly a fault of the songs though, right?
-Steamies and Diesels - Learn How They Work - This is a very short informational piece on how the different engine types work, at only about 2 and a half minutes in length, but the briefness of this featurette isn't a negative by any means. Honestly, how long are children going to set there and let you educate them when what they really want to do is watch Thomas or play with their toys? This gets the information to the children in a quick, precise, yet unhurried manner.
Also included is an iPhone/iPad app, Sneak Peek - Hero of the Rails. I don't have either of these devices so I can't really tell you what they're all about, but I can tell you it would have been nice if Android users weren't left out of the picture.
Thomas & Friends is a favorite childhood pastime for many, and even if it was never a part of your life growing up, your own kid is probably going to fall in love and make you watch the same Thomas adventures over and over again. That being said, you may want to keep watching the old Thomas adventures you have on your DVR and in your DVD/Blu-ray collection. Day of the Diesels is a little bland since so much of it takes place in the dark and creepy Dieselworks warehouse, and this setting even comes across as being a little frightening for some of the younger audience members. Granted, every child is different and will react to the story and visuals on screen in different ways, but I suggest you rent this before committing to a purchase. Your child may be bored of the ugly setting Day of the Diesels takes place in, and if they are scared of the Diesels and their home, you can bet this disc will end up being little more than an expensive coaster for their sippy cups. On the positive side of things, the A/V presentation is slightly better than broadcast (which says a lot as the show looks amazing on PBS HD... when they actually air it in HD). Let's hope the next adventure is more captivating than this one, in the 'should be' tradition of last year's Misty Island Rescue.