Thomas has really come a long way from his super creepy and joyless early adventures. We may have lost Ringo Starr’s soft Scouse narration, but ever since the number one blue engine returned under the moniker Thomas & Friends, the franchise has been finding its feet faster than Spencer the giant silver prick… or whatever he’s called. There have been teething problems along the way, especially since the move to full CGI in 2008, but around series 19, the show seemed to have found its voice: a gently humorous one that was vastly less irritating and frustrating than previous episodes.
Thomas’s screen presence is considerable. Alongside 22 seasons of the TV show, there have been countless made-for-TV specials, each one a standalone adventure that introduces new characters who then become regulars in the TV series. Sure, it’s all in the name of merchandising, but what kids’ TV isn’t? Most of these feature-length specials are nothing to write home about, little more than standard episodes stretched past their breaking point. One, however, is very different.
The Great Race is head and shoulders above the rest of the series mainly because it feels like real effort went into it. Writer Andrew Brenner and director David Staton are regulars on the series, but seem to have upped their game here, delivering a charming film that benefits from a witty script and a straightforward narrative about learning to love who you are. Released prior to season 20, it essentially marks the point where Thomas & Friends hits its stride.
The adventure kicks off with Thomas meeting Gordon’s brother, The Flying Scotsman, who is on his way to The Railway Show, a festival of competitions and parades featuring trains from all over the world. Once the engines on Sodor get word of the show, they all want a part of it. Gordon wants to prove he’s faster than his brother (transforming himself into a streamlined version called ‘The Shooting Star’), Diesel tries to con his way in (as per usual), James gets a new paint job for the beauty pageant section and Percy gets the nod for the shunting competition.
Thomas tries various ways to get in on the action, all of which go drastically wrong. In the process, he literally bumps into a beautifully decorated Indian engine named Ashima (Tina Desai) who missed her boat to the show. There’s clearly chemistry between the two, even though Thomas is too caught up in himself to give Ashima the time of day, trying to get streamlined and repainted instead of helping her reach the mainland.
Of course, this being a kids’ film, Ashima helps Thomas to realise he’s being an arse and to enjoy being himself. This is mainly done through a musical number ‘Six Small Wheels’, a sitar-flecked earworm that will burrow its way into your brain and re-emerge at random for the rest of your life. In general, the songs in The Great Race are surprisingly good, especially Diesel’s ‘Full of Surprises’, which plays out like a vaudeville villain’s showstopper.
Absolutely none. It’s as tame as they come.
Highlight for the grown-ups
It’s way more watchable than the rest of Thomas & Friends but ‘Six Small Wheels’ is definitely the highlight.