Friday 20 July 2018

Going off-track: "Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! The Movie"

For those who aren't on point with events in the world created by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, this will likely come as a shock. Having been bought up by Mattel in 2002, everyone's favourite talking tank engines have been relocated to the generic-looking island of Sodor and repurposed as the centrepieces of noisy, busy yet entirely bland digital content conceived to distract youngsters and swipe any pocket money that hasn't already gone the way of Pixar or Adam Sandler. In this respect, the franchising has been successful - Big World! Big Adventures! The Movie is the eleventh Thomas & Friends feature to speed down the tracks towards stricken parents - but it's clear that the homely, laconic charm of the Ringo Starr period is now long behind us; likewise, the objections to 2000's crudely digitised Thomas and the Magic Railroad, featuring (and this never fails to amuse me) Alec Baldwin as the voice of the Fat Controller. Modernisation is all well and good, but it may now be time for Jeremy Corbyn to put forward a plaintive call to renationalise Thomas.

The latest instalment is so busy generating motion and setpieces that it rather forgets about - sometimes whizzes past - anything so hidebound as story. Instead, we get a Thomas travelogue: our hero gets the idea of venturing off the beaten tracks from a rally car voiced by Peter Andre (!), an element clearly sketched in - with no real artistry - because the animators remembered their kids once seemed to enjoy the talking cars in a Pixar movie. (First flashing sign of mediocrity: it's cribbing from the Pixar movies nobody really likes.) Shipping Thomas off to Africa, South America and China does, granted, get the series out of its cosy wheelyard: we get blazing savannah sundowns, trains with faces less pale than Thomas's own, rolling stock with (broad) accents. Yet even this development seems as though it was arrived at after a brainstorming session on how best to tap the goodwill around Marvel's Black Panther and similar projects: our movies, even our pifflingly minor screenfillers, have learnt there is money to be made from diversity. Otherwise, no depth, emotion or subtext, just colours and shapes, which may of course be what four and five-year-olds want, but is going to leave their wearying guardians with ample time to ponder how weird it is that this Thomas should carry on jolly conversations with carriages whose faces are literally coupled to his caboose, Human Centipede-style. This isn't Awdry; it's tawdry.

Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! The Movie opens in cinemas nationwide today.

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