Saturday, December 02, 2006

WIHTESTGALQ - Thomas the Tank Engine: On down the line he blows

Third in a series of reviews of What I Have to Endure Sometimes to Get a Little Quiet.

I have now put up with about five years of entertainment aimed at kids, and I have a few things to say.

Thomas the Tank Engine. Thomas and his dozens of friends were a HUGE part of our life for years. We were very familiar with the self-esteem issues, petty jealousies, and passive-aggressive behavior of Percy, James, Toby, Bertie, Henry, Stepney, Rusty, Salty, Cranky, Emily, Oliver, Toad, Duncan, Douglas, Bill, Ben, Rheneas, Skarloey, Oliver, Gordon, Edward, George, Trevor, Harold, Elizabeth, Boco, Mavis, Daisy, Diesel, Diesel 10, and Sir Topham Hatt. Do you think I had to look those names up? I did not.

Oh, god. I mean, how many stories do you think you can wring out of the by-definition linear world of a railway? (Turns out it's 275) Especially if the action doesn't center on the human characters? So everyone is always falling off the rails, crashing through buildings, and sniping at each other.

The videos have pretty high production values though I must say. Model trains puff busily on the tracks through a pretty model countryside. But the humans are wooden figurines with painted faces and mitten hands, and I have always thought it is just plain weird when inanimate objects with no limbs are made to be characters. Especially vehicles. With no arms, there's not a lot they can, y'know, do. And with no body articulation, it's hard to convey expression. They can't turn their heads to converse, because, uh, they don't have heads. Consequently, the trains on the Island of Sodor roll their eyes A. Lot. At least they don't crane their faces sideways like the planes do on Jay-Jay the Jet Plane. Oh wow, how I hated that one!

In addition, the damn thing is British, and there's all this class-based subtext. ("You are a freight engine - don't try to pull passenger cars!") We once asked a friend from Yorkshire his opinion of Thomas. He confessed an abiding affection for the show and said that he had always identified with Percy the Saddle Engine. Working-class, provincial Percy is obsequious to a fault. He often grumbles about the dirty work he has to do and then feels guilty and fearful because of his disloyalty. Gives you a chill when you think of the writers setting up this character as a conduit for that message to those types of kids.

And the whole useful, cheerful, respectful thing. Extremely minor deviations from these standards of behavior function as major plot mechanisms - there's nothing else to break up the monotony! The relentlessly chin-up songs, too, with their sprightly but oppressive melodies, sung by the typical British choir of orphans and accompanied by a rinky-dink piano - ugh, I totally get what made the Who smash their guitars.

On the other hand, my boys have been done with Thomas for a while, and just yesterday Mr. Three decided he'd like to watch one. As it started up, I had to kind of admire the detailed miniature train sets and the real trails of steam puffing rhythmically out of the stacks. Plus there's the Carlin thing. A little cognitive dissonance goes a long way for me.

Extra bonus: There is a story during which Percy is all upset because he can't get a hose-down and he doesn't like being dirty. They actually came out with a special-edition Percy toy, called Dirty Percy. Ok. But it is quite common for two- and three-year-olds to be unable to pronounce a mid-word "r," which means that when this train becomes their favorite, you can hear them clamoring for "Dutty Pussy".

And here's a video that you probably have to be me to enjoy.