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Season 15 - Episode 7 Review: Happy Hiro

March 2011 saw the seventh episode of Season 15 of Thomas & Friends...

...but before the review, the usual disclaimer:


The views below are entirely those of the author and not representative of the Sodor Island Forums as a whole.


On that note, it's time to get this review underway...


同じく、私は幸せであって、あなたが幸せであることを希望する!

---

Happy Hiro

Writer: Sharon Miller



Thomas tries to cheer Hiro up when he sees that he does not look very happy. Hiro tells Thomas he is sad because he is missing home, so Thomas takes him on a trip to forget his woes.


Overall Impressions

I'll let you in on a secret. Hero of the Rails was my favourite of the Thomas & Friends specials. It was still a hugely flawed film in a lot of ways, but it introduced the CGI good and proper, and moreover, it was fun.


It also introduced my favourite of the CGI-era new characters - Hiro. There's something about the Japanese D51 class that has stirred the often little used engineer in me. I find the design fascinating: a terrific combination of engineering pragmatism, and the crisp, clean lines of Oriental design.


So any excuse to see Greg Tiernan's beautiful portrayal of the D51, Hiro, on screen is okay by me!


Bachmann, if you are reading - we want Hiro to be made into a HO model. You'll sell them by the bucketload, as he's the only CGI character that has any real depth to his personality.


He's actually quite popular as a result, but as yet the only models available of Hiro (or any D51, for that matter, since Kato stopped manufacturing their HO model) are either the Take N Play model (of which I bought both for my godson!) and the wooden railway Hiro.


Plus, the number of importers from Japan would be extremely high - it's their Flying Scotsman in many ways, after all, and to have a Thomas & Friends character as a D51 was (from a marketing point of view) genius. Probably the only thing I can say that Sharon Miller has got right (if of course, Hiro's introduction can be credited to her).


When Hero of the Rails was first mooted, and then announced, there was an alarming facet of Hiro's backstory - purportedly the first engine on Sodor. This part of his backstory has, thankfully, been dropped, if today's episode was anything to go by.


It was a ridiculous piece of rebooting that would have seen the first of the engines in the books - Edward - sidelined by a Japanese locomotive, in all likelihood, built at the least, fifty years after the purported K2 rebuild!


Now, however, Hiro is simply considered to be "old". Which is a bit rich when you consider how modern his design is compared to the frankly geriatric Billinton E2 design...!!!


When I saw the opening shot of Hiro today, my heart leaped. No narration? No exposition? Just a fantastic closeup of the superb D51 model? I was beside myself with glee! Perhaps the writing will be better today, I thought.


How naive. Less than two seconds later, Thomas appears on screen. More expositional padding, more rhyming and alliteration, more blah blah blah and technically redundant dialogue.


In previous years I have described this sort of writing as "Doctor Seuss the Tank Engine & Others". Constant rhyming in a sing-song way. Wheeshed and whooped?


Come on chaps. Some proper dialogue would do wonders for this show. When you have CGI of the quality that Nitrogen Studios is churning out, you can do more show, less tell, and therefore make the episodes more entertaining as a result. The separate narrator and the individual voice actors will never go now (and rightly so), but they do need better scripts in front of them to make the most of their voices.


For example - with the facial expressions so apparent for all the engines - no exclusions - is it really necessary to describe how the engine looks, either by the narrator, or by character himself? Instead of "Hiro looked sad", the simpler (and infinitely preferable) description could have been "Hiro puffed sadly away" - the difference is minor, but important. In the latter's case, you are given a means of changing scene without having to then state "let's go somewhere else" or "Hiro went..." and so on, and so forth.


This makes both the narrator's job, and the voice actors' jobs, easier; as this means a certain amount of emotive content is left to the visual qualities of the piece. We don't need Thomas to now say "I feel bad about X", we can see it in his facial qualities.


To some extent, the problem is the idea of spoon feeding the audience. Thomas & Friends is the number one brand for toddlers. The writing now, is always going to be designed to talk down to the lowest common denominator. Yet you look around, and see the likes of Poco Yo! and similar, and you know sincerely that less is always more.


Children pick up on the emotional qualities of a piece far more in the facial qualities of a character than any expositional piece of dialogue. This is a known fact which was trialled and tested when the original model based Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends series appeared on our television screens.


In the case of the model series, the static faces always had the extremes of emotions on offer - happy, sad, horrified, scared, angry, and so on and so forth. Studies done with children of the age that the series is now specifically aimed at, found that the faces were that which gave the most notable responses (not necessarily the dialogue).


This was - it was found - one of the reasons why children with autism identified strongly with the characters in the original show, and indeed, one of the concerns raised when the series went over to CGI, was if that clear and positive advantage to using static faces for the models would be lost.


Looking at the way the faces have been rendered by Nitrogen Studios, I don't think it has been lost to the extent it could have been. But given that the quality of the writing of the original series, as directed by David Mitton and Britt Allcroft, proved that showing rather than telling was key to screening a good storyline, you would have thought that the current crop of writers would have done their homework, and seen this was so.


You'll notice that in today's review, I have covered very little of the actual episode in question.


That was deliberate, I'm determined not to depress the readers of this blog every single day! The storyline was of course poorly written, the shoehorning in of new characters over older characters disgraceful, and the repeated themes and concepts of previous episodes obvious to all and sundry.


It's all the same - cut and paste, cut and paste. One wonders if there is actually a physical template to these episodes - fill in the gaps:


"_______" goes to "_______" and meets "_______". "_______" does X, Y and Z wrong before getting it right and meeting "_______", "_______" and "_______" where everyone laughs or smiles at the end before rolling the credits.


That we can honestly say this is true of all seven episodes this season really brings home how dire the writing is.


But enough of that - I'll let the final conclusions sort all that out.


Pay attention now - it's quite simple. Hiro needs YOU!


He's the only decent CGI-era character to exist, and not only is his role relegated to following Thomas around like a puppy, he's clearly not filling his potential as a marketable character.


So all of you lovely people in the United States, get on the blower to Bachmann USA and fill in their form on their website, or email at sales@bachmanntrains.com, and ask them to make Hiro a HO gauge model for their Thomas range.


If enough people ask, they will make it happen. I'm sure everyone wants the Diesel model next year, but wouldn't it be nice if the first new tender engine since Edward was one with some potential for storytelling, hmmm....?


Final Conclusions

The more you watch these episodes, the more you realize how lucky you were to have been young enough to appreciate the storytelling of the model series. I thought the beauty of the CGI series would taint the model series for me, the difference in overall visual look being of course, far superior, but more than anything, it has made me appreciate just how good the stories the Reverend W. Awdry originally penned were, and how well they adapted to be seen on the silver screen.


Moreover, all the hoohah over the episode Henry's Forest, which is what got Wilbert Awdry's goat originally, seems to pale in significance compared to the lazy, cut and paste storytelling we find here.


Overall, I look at Hero of the Rails now, and whilst it has its flaws, it was still an enjoyable storyline. Yes, there were so many problems with the script at the level of railway operations, it was unbearable, but the special as a whole was entertaining, and introduced just one new character, who had the potential to develop into an ambassador for his country, and the history of his country's railways.


That potential has sadly gone unfulfilled with some very minor roles in few episodes, whilst more and more, characters like Charlie/Bash/Dash/Ferdinand are forced upon the kids with every episode. That's right - this episode was immediately restricted to 3/10 at the most, because Ferdinand said his catchphrase halfway through. It actually only gets 2/10 from me for being yet another example of the cut and paste writing format that is killing the series.


If I were one of the chief executives of HiT Entertainment, I would be seriously questioning the decision to hire the current crop of writers, when that they have produced is so sub standard. It doesn't just hurt the chances of future series of Thomas & Friends (though rest assured, it is more than safe based on DVD sales alone), it impacts on the rest of its business as it builds up a reputation for poor storytelling, that I can state with confidence cannot be aimed at the rest of its children's shows.


But then again, what do I know. I simply long to be in that privileged position, head writer, overseeing a Renaissance in decent storytelling, about talking trains on a fictional railway, on a island where its history was so important to the creator, he spent most of his life writing a book on it.


The Island of Sodor, by Wilbert and George Awdry. I encourage everyone to find a copy if you can. It's not about making it so historical its no longer entertaining. It's reminding one's self that the potential of Sodor has yet to be realized.


With that in mind, I'll leave it there for now.


Until next time!


Individual Episode Score: 2/10 - Gordon and Ferdinand 4/10 - Toby and Bash 3/10 - Emily and Bash 5/10 - Edward The Hero 1/10 - James to the Rescue 2/10 - Happy Hiro
Total Season Score So Far: 18/70
Average Season Score So Far: 2.6/10

Quick Character Stats


Speaking Roles:

Hiro, Thomas, Percy, Charlie, Bash, Dash, Ferdinand


Cameos:

Gordon, Toby, Captain, James, Harold, Rocky


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