The reassuring view from above – which introduces the island as an orderly, quaint paradise – gives way to the helicopter descent to the building site, where we join our central characters. A climber has just been saved and we’re soon made aware that this is the future Search & Rescue Centre. The notion of […]

The reassuring view from above – which introduces the island as an orderly, quaint paradise – gives way to the helicopter descent to the building site, where we join our central characters. A climber has just been saved and we’re soon made aware that this is the future Search & Rescue Centre. The notion of rescue is henceforth not just firmly established, but clearly emphasised. As the dialogue takes shape, with key aspects of what is to form the main catalysts of the story exposed, a nod must be given to the economical manner in which Nature’s four elements have been brought together.

Misty Island Rescue has a near flawless narrative, in the most traditional sense. It is also a relatively recent feature-length animation from the Thomas, The Tank Engine series, originally created by the Reverend W Awdry over 60 years ago. At this point, a large section of regular Now Then readers will flick away from this page towards the remaining contents of the magazine.

Those who once held the friendly inhabitants of the Island of Sodor close to their heart now consider it some distant childhood affection, irrevocably left behind as adulthood loomed and kicked in. But those who since have become parents themselves will understand the numbness generated by sitting through endless hours of Thomas & Friends episodes, particularly if you have a boy and witness the rapid proliferation of related merchandise across the household. As the DVD collection expands and is watched over and over, I ask myself – what is it about these trains with round benign faces that so captivates children? I attempted an interview with my two-year-old son, but he remained suspiciously elusive. I fear that I may be on my own, in the face of one more thing that is there to be accepted and not questioned.

There’s a strong moral backbone running through this highly profitable franchise. It has held the entire series together since the early books and is pervasive in every model episode narrated by Ringo Starr or subsequent animated feature film. Whilst the episodes are repetitive tales punctuated by basic emotions, the films are rather more ambitious in tone and scale. What they share in common is something quintessentially British; gratification in being given a role in a wider structure and pride in performing it well.

Perhaps this is the key to this nation’s success in business or, if extended to the performing arts, having produced so many skilful actors. A perfect work ethic is therefore what all the characters aspire to, albeit in the guise of being a ‘very useful engine’. Along with that comes another very British trait – competitiveness; something that is thoroughly encouraged in every stage of life – often detrimental to spiritual harmony or more lateral thinking – but that in Thomas & Friends is counterpointed with the notion of friendship. The characters experience jealousy and often get into trouble when wanting to be the best, but they’re always redeemed by companionship and a sense of togetherness.

This brings us back to Misty Island Rescue and one of its earliest sequences. Again, it builds from economical exposition but, this time around, evolves into full, extremely well-edited action. After the wood to be used in the construction of the Rescue Centre arrives, the reward of shunting it to the site is expressly promised to the engine that proves to be the most useful. As Thomas lingers around and admires the red logs being placed on trucks, Devious Diesel approaches and picks up on his interest. The rivalry between ‘diesels’ and ‘steamies’ has been central to a lot of the episodes produced throughout the years and Thomas’ dismissive tone when he tells Diesel that this is a job for a steamy immediately prompts the latter’s blind competitiveness.

What ensues is the aforementioned action sequence in the form of a chase, as Diesel decides to shunt the trucks with the precious wood himself and is pursued by Thomas, who tries to stop him. A sense of adrenalin-infused anticipation builds up, leading to Diesel being unable to brake in time before an unfinished bridge and losing the trucks one by one as they drop down a cliff and into the sea. Through his recklessness, Diesel almost plunges himself along the way, but thanks to Thomas’s bravery, he’s eventually pulled back onto the track.

The dismay of Sir Topham Hatt (aka The Fat Controller) and his awareness of how delayed the construction works will be still allow him to praise Thomas’s ability to make the right decision and reward him with a trip to mainland.

Up to this point in the narrative, an incredible balance between traditional story-telling, suspenseful action and excellent use of music has certainly been attained. But the film becomes even more successful as a cautionary tale for children from the scene in which Thomas is about to depart. It’s with great precision that nearly every subsequent scene evolves from Thomas’s naive arrogance. Each ‘good’ decision he makes has a dramatic consequence which truly contributes to the adventure ‘gathering steam’.

Once in a while, the mist lifts and one can see the neighbouring island where strange engines whistle and puff in strange ways, Thomas learns as he’s waiting to be winched onto the ship. The tale also tells of an engine getting lost and having to puff three times to make smoke signals and be rescued.

Needless to say, Thomas’ decision to travel to mainland on a raft attached to the big ship leads him to end up a castaway on Misty Island, where he becomes acquainted with three rather unkempt and eccentric engines who call themselves The Logging Locos. Influenced by recent tales, Thomas dismisses them and tries unsuccessfully to find his way out on his own.

In terms of message, the most positive aspect of this section of the film is an acceptance of what is different or foreign. Thomas begins to work together with the erratic trio and they all gradually learn to respect one another. Whilst all of his old friends back home search for him, Thomas becomes aware of the kind of logs these new companions carelessly move about. It’s the same red wood as was previously lost by Diesel and soon, by means of child-like vanity, he manipulates the Logging Locos into helping him take it to the Search & Rescue Centre on his native Sodor. This involves going through a disused tunnel, but Thomas’s powers of persuasion back fire when they end up stuck in it.

He is forced to acknowledge his pursuit of self-interest as a ‘wrong decision’. Again, this makes for good drama in narrative terms, but is also an invaluable lesson for the young viewers. The tunnel soon collapses on top of the four engines, but this creates a hole to the surface above their heads, which in turn allows for Thomas to puff three times and warn his friends that he is, in fact, trapped on Misty Island.

Two expeditions set off to go and rescue him – one by sea, the other via the tunnel. The underground one reaches him first and Thomas soon learns about the other. His concern about his friends getting lost in the perilous Misty Island makes him head back to save them. The rescuee becomes the rescuer in a finale which also sees possible the completion of the Rescue Centre.

The greatest achievement of this film is how the didactic – which needs to be in place – is so much in synch with the entertainment aspect, which in this case derives from the quality of narrative structure. I see Thomas & Friends in direct, romantic correlation with this nation’s ability to always retain a sense of tradition, regardless of its ongoing technological progress.

And it doesn’t get more romantically traditional than a steam train…

This article was partially written between journeys on the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales, home of the unique Double-Fairlie locomotives.

JOÃO PAULO SIMÕES.