When I was a kid, The Smurfs was the highlight of my Saturday morning. So when I saw that a Smurfs movie – The Smurfs and the Magic Flute – was going to be shown on television, I couldn’t contain my excitement. It was like my Super Bowl. When it aired I made sure my busy six year-old’s schedule was cleared so I could watch.
And then came one of the most traumatic moments of my young life: when the Smurfs started talking, their voices sounded completely different. It was like my favourite characters had been taken over by alien impostors. I just couldn’t understand what was happening, and after ten minutes or so, I had to turn it off.
Eventually, I figured out that voice actors – actual people – provide the voices of animated characters, and that The Smurfs and the Magic Flute was made by a different company than the producers of the NBC Saturday-morning show. But try explaining that to a young child. (Heck, I’m 38, and even I still get a little creeped out when I see a really early Simpsons episode in which Dan Castellanata was trying to make Homer sound like Walter Matthau.)
I bring this up because children weaned on recent Thomas and Friends videos might be taken aback by Let’s Explore With Thomas, a four-DVD set featuring some of the tank engine’s previously-released adventures.
Thomas is entirely computer-animated these days, the characters’ faces and mouths move, and each character has his or her own distinctive voice. But not so long ago, the series was produced with models; only the characters’ eyes moved when they spoke, and just one man – narrator Michael Brandon – voiced everyone in the show.
This isn’t meant to be a criticism of Let’s Explore With Thomas. In fact, I found these earlier videos even more charming than the new ones. Producer Britt Alcroft wanted a single narrator and voice actor to simulate an adult telling stories to young children, and it works wonderfully.
The production design is even more impressive. The creators of Thomas and Friends came up with a remarkably detailed world for Thomas and his locomotive friends to travel, complete with harbours, rivers, bridges, mountains and – needless to say – rail lines all over the place. The recent CGI episodes look great, but these earlier ones are even more impressive for being painstakingly created by hand. (The set even comes with a large map showing the attractions and rail lines on Thomas and Friends’ very British setting, the Isle of Sodor.)
The stories are very charming, too. One of the videos – Calling All Engines! – is an hour-long movie about Thomas and his fellow steam engines’ rivalry with the mean-spirited diesels, while the others feature episodes of the television show. Highlights include a diesel engine getting his comeuppance after trying to scare Thomas with tales of a “ghost train,” Thomas trying to find a birthday picnic spot for Sir Topham Hatt and his visiting mother, and old Edward in a tortoise-and-hare race with a Duke and Duchess’s sleek private locomotive.
The DVDs are packed with special features, too. Each one contains several games, sing-a-longs, character galleries (particularly useful for parents, who aren’t nearly as good as children at keeping everyone straight) and – best of all – listen-and-read stories, apparently adapted from Thomas and Friends books, with the narrator reading the text. (There’s an option to read without sound, too.)
Let’s Explore With Thomas, then, should delight any young Thomas and Friends fan – but just make sure they’re ready for their favourite characters looking and sounding a bit different.