This is a big topic to put into a short blog post and I have no intention on covering the complexities of the creepiness of the CG Thomas the Tank Engine with his juvenile voice versus the original stop motion series and its droll voiceovers by Ringo Starr (later Michael Angelis in the UK*) rather I’d like to take a moment to consider some of the range of anthropomorphized vehicles currently filling the pre-school airwaves (or in our case, Netflix).
Like many (some) parents, I have something of a careful eye over what my three-year old watches, in part to assess its suitability for his age, as well as the potential educational content, and of course whether I can stand to listen to it. As an animation scholar, I have another eye on what is going on.
Rory the Racecar, the Cars films, Thomas, Budgie the Helicopter, the ‘machine team’ from Bob the Builder among others all share an anthropomorphic incarnation as vehicles and often in worlds entirely devoid of human interaction. This aspect of narrative and verisimilitude is often problematic (to me at least) – it took several viewings of Cars, before I could enjoy the Doc Hollywood story and ignore the dubious reality of these vehicles but at least Lightning McQueen gets over his awful douchebag personality and learns the true value of community and friendship.
Recently, (unfortunately) my son discovered The Adventures of Chuck and Friends, which features a cheeky (but good at heart) dump truck child, whose parents are a big rig and a forklift; his brother is a monster truck/racer. Overall the show has a very positive message of difference and mixed race as Chuck’s parents are clearly different from each other and him and the show makes use of the repetitive narrative structure found in most kids (and adults) shows to attempt to reinforce the messages of listening to your parents and being a good friend, however this repetitive structure works to do the opposite when you view them on a streaming platform, often several in a row – Chuck never seems to learn his lesson and never listens to his parents until he gets into trouble and has to make amends. It may seem ambitious of me to want the character to somehow grow and develop but what the narrative tells me (and worryingly my son) is that its ok to constantly ignore your elders as long as you say sorry and giggle at the end.
Luckily my son’s obsessions with new shows only lasts a few weeks and he soon found Space Racers, which is almost more bizarre in its anthropomorphism. The show features space cadets and their teachers as they learn all about space, but the shuttles are all odd machine/bird hybrids. This is ignored by my son, who happily absorbs all of the educational lessons about planets, rather than questioning why the wise old master is a Crane as well as being a space rocket? I can forgive the characterisations with a show which so smart about space. (I need to add that this show has won awards for its educational content)
While we’re forgiving educational shows for odd anthropomorphism I’ll give a positive nod to Octonauts, which goes for good old fashioned animal-humans who help sea creatures while dispensing some excellent facts about the world. The cadets again are multi species and working together to help each other and the many interesting and diverse inhabitants of the Earth’s vast bodies of water with nice messages of co-operation and difference as well as great info (I didn’t know about Vampire Squids!).
I know there are many more examples which could be discussed with more academic rigour and certainly in more detail but I don’t want to think about any more of these shows with their theme tunes designed to stay in your brains forever – Octonauts at ease, until the next adventure!
* See the post by Christopher Holliday on regional variations of voice
Dr Nichola Dobson is based in Edinburgh, lecturing part time at Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. Founding editor of Animation Studies from 2006 until 2011 and founding editor of Animation Studies 2.0 since its inception in March 2013. She has published on both animation studies and television, including The A to Z of Animation and Cartoons (2010) and Historical Dictionary of Animation and Cartoons (2009) for Scarecrow Press. She has published in anthologies on Crime Scene Investigation and Life on Mars as well as shorter works for the online journal FLOW. She is currently working on a book on TV animation with Paul Ward for Edinburgh University Press and a book on Scottish animator Norman McLaren. She began a new role as President of the Society for Animation Studies in autumn 2014.