When I was a little girl, around 5 or so, my favorite toys were the metal and wooden trains baring the likenesses of Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends. I had tons of books and videos on locomotives, including the entire collection of all the original printed Thomas stories and just about every Thomas video under the sun. I was hooked on trains, and I was hooked on Thomas. The little blue tank engine and his array of amusing companions was the highlight of my childhood.
To this day, even at 21 years old, I still love trains and Thomas and his friends. But, before I give my review, I will give my honest say on what I think of the series now that it seems to have gotten a major overhaul in animation, narration and script. I only watch the seasons narrated by Ringo Starr and George Carlin, which include all the original stories written by the Rev. W. Awdry. In my opinion, no other narrators after them have lived up to the Thomas name, nor did any of the material written after Awdry's stories (and his son's) were filmed even touch the brilliance of the original volumes. I'm no fan of Angelis, Brandon or Baldwin. There are way too many new characters to count; my favorites will always be those that emanated from Awdry's mind (save for Salty; I do like him). I can see why they would introduce more 'female' characters to the series, but enough is enough honestly. (Of the original two female engines Daisy and Mavis, Mavis was my favorite.) As soon as Baldwin took over as narrator and Awdry's stories gave way to the show writers and the classic, beautiful live-action filming became blotched and bloated with CGI, I stopped watching. The feature film 'Thomas and the Magic Railroad', as cute as it is, does no justice to the original series and the charms of the 'Shining Time Station' show. How I yearn for the Golden Years of my beloved children's show.
When I first saw Thomas and his friends, I fell in love. I loved everything about it. The characters, the stories, the settings, the music, the animation, the narration. Thomas is the main character of the series, but my favorite is and will always be James the Red Engine. Thomas is described as 'a cheeky little engine' who generally has a sunny and easy-going attitude about railway life. He runs a branchline with his two coaches Annie and Clarabelle. He sometimes gets himself into trouble, partakes in some rather clever and sometimes hilarious banter with Gordon (the big, proud and blue mainline engine), and serves as the other half of a sweet friendship he has with Percy (the little round green engine). Some of the other main characters include Gordon, Percy, Henry (the big green and often sickly engine), Edward (the older, wise blue tender engine), my favorite firecracker James, and of course, the famous Fat Controller, a.k.a. Sir Topham Hatt. My favorite characters besides James are Edward, Duck (the Great Western Engine), Donald the Scottish engine, and Bill the yellow tank engine. Of the Narrow Gauge Engines, my favorites are Peter Sam (Stuart), Duncan and Skarloey.
The narration, by Starr and Carlin, is absolutely superb. Starr, although he lends the same voice tone to almost all of the characters, still exudes a lively overture to our metal pals and captures the essence of each character perfectly as the series' first narrator. His powerful turn in the 'Trouble In The Shed' episode still gives me chills, and no one, not even Carlin, can tell the story of 'The Flying Kipper' as grippingly as Starr. When Carlin started narrating, I was treated to an even more splendid and often hilarious telling of the Reverend's stories, and unlike Starr, Carlin gives almost every engine their very own voice. His best vocals include the authentic accent for the sleek and sly Scottish Twins Donald and Douglas, the deep and aging timbre of proud Gordon and the mischievous squeaking of the quarry twins Bill and Ben. He adds that classic arrogant pipe to my boy James perfectly, and his slick and oily resonance for the show's main villain, Diesel, is velvety-smooth and refined like the lies Diesel tells.
The stories and writing were all very good until they ran out of ideas from Awdry's and Christopher Awdry's stories and started writing their own, which began right around Carlin's departure from the series. Each story had its own moral and emphasized the values of hard work, determination, and the power of friendship. The first few seasons narrated by Baldwin were about on par, if a little mediocre at best, but nowhere as good as the original literature. The father and son stories will always be my favorites. Among those are 'James in a Mess'; 'Donald and Douglas'; 'James Learns a Lesson'; 'Old Iron' and 'Pop Goes the Diesel'.
Each engine gets his/her own theme music, and this I absolutely love. Every once in a while, I catch myself humming James's proudly upbeat jive or the Scottish Twins' finger-tapping drum set. Some of the music, such as the sadly sweet harmonies elicited in 'Henry's Forest' and in just about any scene where someone is feeling the downs, may even draw a few tears. The live-action sets and model trains used for the series are wonderfully articulated and placed, making for such a realistic backdrop that you forget it's just a model train set-up.
When it comes down to brass tacks, nothing compares to the Starr and Carlin years of this still beloved children's series. The animation, stories and narration may not be as well as it was 20 years ago, but Thomas, in any way, will always be top train around these parts. (Or in my case, James is.) So all aboard the nostalgia express! My Grade: Starr/Carlin – A+; Baldwin to present – C-