Thursday, 26 May 2011

Riding the Rails with Chuggington

Although I'll always be fond of the classic stuff - be they shows from the 80's, 90's or even way back in the 40's - I'll admit that there are still some present-day shows that manage to grab my attention, and NOT for the wrong reasons. Such as the 2010 Jungle Book series or the recent new episodes of Grizzly Tales, both which have proven fantastic in my eyes.

So here's something a little different, as today I'll be reviewing a pre-school series. Now this is a somewhat difficult area for anyone in the media biz to handle: certain TV Companies require a series that will help educate youngsters under 10 while, at the same time, making it entertaining enough for the long-suffering parents who are forced to watch them.

And depending on which business an animation studio is commissioned by, most of today's preschool shows usually become littered with soulless, samey characters who always, somehow, have to "learn" a lesson, which they bluntly state to the "audience" instead of it being discreetly weaved within the story. And because certain companies fear the wrath of Soccer Moms from producing anything that may prove to be too "violent" or "scary" for the kiddies, scripting for most preschool shows wind up watered down and stripped of any imagination given.

Not all kids shows were like this. Back then anyone could watch The Herbs, The Magic Roundabout, Charlie Chalk and Mr. Benn without a word of complaint - each were made mainly to entertain rather than educate.

But if the scripting doesn't suffer, then the animation does. Usually done "on the cheap" by some outsourced studio to get said number of episodes out ASAP, thus making a great story fall flat due to dreadful visual quality.

It's the same old ouroboros: poor writing / good animation, or poor animation / good writing, something else which I have covered long, long ago...


There comes a time when a preschool series manages to achieve in both animation AND writing, and here's where things finally get kick-started.

Chuggington was produced back in 2008 by Ludorum plc, set in a fictional railway/railroad world where "trains talk, think and don't need drivers." It follows the adventures of three young "trainee" locomotives (Wilson, Brewster and Koko), who learn the importance of teamwork, friendship and railway practices with the guidance of their experienced "Chugger" elders.

Ludorum was formed in 2006 by former Learning Curve chairman Dick Rothkopf and former HIT Entertainment executives Charlie Caminada and Rob Lawes. Their other properties include the latest Dennis and Gnasher animated series for the BBC and an unreleased series called Marvo the Wonder Chicken (based on a comic strip series from The Dandy).

What makes Chuggington stand out is that this series was made in CGI-animation compared to the slick 2D animation from the other two. The animation itself was made by Motion Magic studios in Shanghai, China, and the characters and sets designed by Don Toht.
Now looking at these, you may well be put off by their toy-like appearance and their cartoony movements when the "chuggers" are in motion, literally jumping off the rails and "swaggering" along with barely any humans present - so was I, TBH, being a true-at-heart railway enthusiast. Naturally, when one of the producers is from a company who specialises in making children's toys, that area is understandable, especially when merchandise is at hand later on.

But a friend finally convinced me to give the series a try - and I went ahead fearing the worse....where several episodes later, I was proven wrong. VERY wrong.

I feel it is best to give grateful thanks to head writer, producer and director Sarah Ball (Bob the Builder) that this series exceeds in animation and writing. Writing comes first in my books, and I have to say I was gobsmacked at how much energy and action and actual character there was in each episode. Very impressive for a pre-school series.
There is always something happening on-screen, with plenty of humour to give kids and parents a worthy chuckle, made all the more interesting with sub-plots that tie in neatly with the main story and fills out each 10-minute run. The morals are present, but here the script writers are allowed to keep them hidden within the stories and let the characters drive it on, rather than the other way around.

The characters play off one another with fantastic dialogue that feels real, whether it's the "trainees" playing about with each other, the "chuggers" quietly musing of the old days or the two generations helping each other out, often with the odd squabble. But usually, it's the experience and wise words of the "chugger elders" that help the youngsters out of various scrapes and become useful indeed. And the best part is every character is given a turn in the spotlight, not just the three token characters you first see in the introduction sequence.

According to an interview from March 2010, Sarah Ball agrees on the importance of good characters and storytelling:

"...First and foremost the stories have to be entertaining and engaging, but our audience are very young and impressionable, so I feel we have a certain responsibility towards them.  We try to have a little lesson or moral in every story so the child watching can take something away.  It might be as simple as sleep is really important or that if you help each other out the work will get done faster..."

"...Our characters are very strongly defined and often knowing how they would react to a situation can spin off into a story. We also love our gadgets and rolling stock and these can often be a starting point too..."

What also appeals to me are the voice actors, who clearly seem to be having a lot of fun reading out as their characters. And an ideal choice for the producers to have the roles of the "trainees" played by actual children - including Wilson, Brewster and KoKo - with the elders played by adult actors. Both genes fit their respective roles like a hand in a glove. Not the first time child actors have been used if one remembers Molly's Gang, Tractor Tom (Season 2) and Peppa Pig =)

As for the animation, rail enthusiast I maybe, I knew this was one of those shows where you just have to escape from the harsh, difficult reality and enjoy what Chuggington has succeeded in doing: entertain. Very smooth and bouncy, adding a lot to the fast-paced storytelling and keeping one's attention from beginning to end.
And I've got to give props to Don Toht who's done a lovely job blending as many locomotive-design types as possible for the International market - a mixture of steam, diesel and electric, which has made it very popular in the UK, US, Australia, France and Germany. Keen eyes will note similar nods towards the Royal Gorge Diesels of Colorado, the Bullet Trains of Japan and the A4 Pacifics of Great Britain!

The biggest surprise of all has been the performance of the series since its launch. Compared to other successful shows in the same market, Chuggington has been faltering in DVD and merchandise sales, which is almost a shame since a lot of hard work has gone into making this series, especially into the writing with believable, likeable characters. And after the amount of episodes I've seen so far, I think maybe we've all underestimated this show purely by appearance rather than the content...which is a sad fact by most hidden gems in animation nowadays, whatever age group or market...

So if you know someone who is on the lookout for a decent modern-day preschool series to watch with their kids, forget Dora the Explorer and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse - Chuggington is one of the best "funducational" shows for children that delivers good morals and well-rounded characters with stories that will never leave you bored...although word of caution: it's not exactly 100% about how a real railway operates, whatever country it's broadcast in ;-)


  1. i like thomas and the chuggington and i do not want them to go vs. one and the other

  2. A great review, as someone who's dedicated his life to Thomas, Chuggington will never comet but is a great lot of fun, and unlike the cgi series of Thomas, it seems everyone working on the show is giving Chuggington their all, and the animation can rival the brilliance of Nitrogen, and within the fact the creators of the s how actually worked as art of HiT on Thomas, they know what it takes to make the series big in this current era of children's 'brands', slling out, but they can still make the show desent in it's script writing, to think what made Thomas a sucsess in the first plae was Awdry's orginal stories that can't be beeten, and Thomas was making just as much with Britt Allcroft, so the idea that you should put all your eggs in the mrchendise basket is silly.

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  4. JK, It's actually ok, but inferior to Thomas.

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