Greetings JBS Group (and everyone else),
My first experience with this film came upon its initial release and, after sitting through the first fifteen minutes or so, I switched away from it for several reasons. Coming from a fan of the official version of the story, I thought this fan film was trying too hard to be exactly like the Railway Series, something that I honestly can’t stand from the fandom nowadays. After several months of consideration, however, I decided to give it the chance it deserves and watch the entire thing through. Here are my in-depth thoughts on the film that attempts to stay true to the beliefs and values instilled by the Rev. W. Awdry himself many decades ago. For those who have not seen it yet, I strongly encourage you to check it out here: JBS: HISB
Upon initial viewing, I felt that, as stated above, the story was trying too hard to be more like a Railway Series production than a mixture of both RWS and TVS influences. Now that I’ve seen the entire thing, however, I feel that the story successfully maintains continuity and ideals from the RWS while also presenting it in a very TVS-esque manner. The overall plot was far more interesting than I initially gave it credit for, and I never really noticed how much the changes from the original script serve to enhance the original vision. I sincerely appreciated that the characters had solid reasons for their actions, and their motivations were much more believable than what HIT gave us. I can understand how the story may be a bit too dark and gritty for the average viewer, but I also believe that is what makes this production so much better.
One of the things that turned me away from my initial viewing was the sheer number of characters going to the Mainland all at once. I thought that there was no way each character was going to be utilized to their fullest, that you guys were simply “filling the quota” for including the “original” Steam Team. But man, I was impressed that, despite using so many characters at once, each felt essential to the story and had their own moments to shine. (I’ll get into more specifics later) Despite seeing some peoples’ views to the contrary, I felt that each character was portrayed perfectly according to their existing personalities and traits, especially the new characters, whose portrayals I prefer here than in the official release. I was thoroughly impressed with the voice acting as, while watching the whole thing, I thought each character was voiced by a different person. Going back, I realized that there were definitely similarities between several vices, but each had such subtle differences to sound like their own, which I thought was absolutely brilliant.
While I do prefer some of the songs in the original better than here, I enjoyed the songs for the most part. Although I don’t quite find the lyrics quite as catchy as the original, I warmed up to each song after listening to them solo. “To the Mainland” is easily my favorite of the film, and was the one song that immediately pulled me in upon my full watch-through. Although I felt it went on for a bit too long and seemed a little redundant at parts, I thoroughly enjoyed the rhythm of the first verse and the chorus. Though “The Experimental’s Lament”, did not sound quite as catchy as “I Want to Go Home”, the lyrics definitely gave the song a more significant emotional impact than the latter; it really captures the gravity experimental engines’ conflict and gave it that darker, more somber tone that they needed. “Journey Beyond Sodor” was a nice mellow song to end off this surprisingly-great special, though I did not feel quite as satisfied with the lyrics as I had been with “The Most Important Thing is Being Friends”.
The models used throughout the film is one of the major aspects that make this story seem more akin to something from the official show. Having the updated, CGI models wherever possible helps to add credibility to this fan project as well as just looking good aesthetically. (because, honestly, the WR CGI faces are the best IMO) I think the choice to have still shots of the different expressions rather than full-blown animation works well for this production because I find it a little less distracting, yet at the same time very effective for building the mood of each scene. The custom models themselves look nice, albeit a little “rough around the edges”, so to speak, but I can overlook that as a minor nitpick because I understand how much actual time and effort goes into making each one. I do have to ask, though, (please, feel free to actually answer below) what prompted the decision to make completely custom faces rather than using official merchandise faces, like many other users have?
I decided to separate my thoughts on the sets/scenery from my thoughts on the character models because, honestly, there’s too much to talk about each to combine in one paragraph. Seriously, some of the sets created for this film are absolutely breathtaking and represent the epitome of the amount of effort that went into the visual aesthetic of the film. Some of my favorites include, but are not limited to, Tidmoth Sheds, (that custom turntable is one of the best WR items I’ve ever seen!) Henry’s Tunnel, Vicarstown and Knapford Stations, the Steelworks, Sodor China Clay Pits, the Viaduct, and the Experimental Yard. All of the other scenes that were only seen for a few seconds (i.e. Scotland, various countrysides, Sudrian stations like Wellsworth, etc) are designed well enough to make the list, as well, but this review is long enough, don’t you think? One thing I will say, however, is that the lighting could’ve been improved in some of the scenes, particularly the ones at night, because I did find it a little difficult to see what was going on, even at full screen brightness.
Now, onto some random nitpicks and thoughts that don’t quite fit into any of the previous categories, but deserve mentioning all the same:
- The humor was seriously on point all throughout this film. Some of my favorite bits were Henry’s ordeal in the tunnel, Merlin showing off his invisibility, (which I thought was done better here than in the original) and the engines’ banter in the Experimental Yard after James’ rescue.
- The ending, although slightly rushed like the original, felt more serious and reasonable than the original. The character interactions and motivations behind the actions throughout the ending feel more natural and believable here.
- I actually really appreciated that you omitted using the large, clunky wooden figures for the people in favor of a more unique option. I thought the use of painted still shots for close ups of the people in the film was very creative and impressive and was glad it was included.
- I will admit, the choice of engines is rather cliché, and I would’ve liked to see some more variety in exactly who went to the Mainland after James, but it works out well in the end.
- As mentioned before, the voice acting was superb for the most part, but there were some voices that I believe had a hard time fitting well; Harvey and Lexi could’ve used a few changes to how their voices were portrayed. That being said, there were several voices, namely Theo, Merlin, Hurricane, Donald, and Douglas, that worked very well in the film.
While I do have my own ideas on how this special could be fixed, I sincerely believe that the changes made here were a definite improvement over the original version. As mentioned above, there are some areas that could use some slight changes, but other than what I’ve already talked about, I don’t have many more complaints regarding this film. I find it hard to believe that people were not initially able to see the great amount of effort this film puts forward in enhancing the Railway Series vibes mixed with the TV Series aesthetic.
Well, that’s all! To all the creators of this amazing piece of fanwork, I really appreciate any and all feedback you provide regarding this review. Until next time – DON’T SILENCE CREATIVITY!