You may not know this about me, but I’ve just decided that I’m our nation’s foremost authority on the subject of vehicular anthropomorphization. It’s a topic I take quite seriously, and have published my strong opinions on these subjects before. As you may guess, to maintain the title I’ve so carefully decided to bestow upon myself requires a never-ending devotion to research. I’m pleased to say that I’ve recently arrived at a new, bold conclusion in the dynamic and exciting field of making vehicles look like living things. Here it is:
The Thomas The Tank Engine series has the creepiest, most awful method of vehicle anthropomorphization in the history of human culture.
This is not an easy finding for me to report as my very own son happens to love Thomas the Tank Engine and all his equally creepy train, automobile, and aircraft buddies. My own son, friends. Now it’s personal. I can’t sit back and watch this happen any longer. I’m the nation’s Leading Authority on Vehicular Anthropomorphization, after all— I have the handwritten certificate to prove it.
Thomas the Tank Engine and all his mechanical friends are a beloved part of our culture, having been first written about back in 1945 by Rev. W.Audry to cheer up his son, who had measles. It’s all very sweet, and the show/stories themselves aren’t the problem— the machinery itself is rendered or illustrated with remarkable accuracy and respect, and the theme song to the cartoon includes the lines “shunting trucks and hauling freight.” Because it’s never too early to get your kids excited about shunting and hauling. So what’s the problem?
The problem, which started with the illustrations in the very first book, is that the way the locomotives and cars and other vehicles are portrayed as being living beings is accomplished in the most lazy, half-assed, thoughtless manner possible. I’m making a harsh criticism here, so let’s inspect this in more detail.
When you want to make a machine look and feel alive so you can turn it from a dumb lump of iron into a lovable character, you need to give it certain key elements to convey emotion and be relatable. In short, a face. The face doesn’t need to be exactly like a human one, but should have provisions for eyes and a mouth at least, and other facial features if desired.
If you do this well, the natural shapes of the inanimate object will suggest facial features in some way, and a skilled artist or designer can readily transform these elements so they form a face that’s in harmony with the design and mechanism of the object itself.
If you do this really poorly, you just slap a face right onto whatever flat surface your object has handy. If you do this really really poorly, you can make sure that the face is a pallid, grey, highly flexible face, like the sallow pallor of dead skin, sliced-off face of a murdered cherub.
Look at these two examples of anthropomorphic diesel locomotives. One is from the competing Chuggington series, and one is from the Thomas and Friends series. You can see how, for the Chuggington train, the various parts of the train were repurposed based on how we process faces. In this case, the front windows serve as eyes, the light unit becomes a nose, and the lower bumper assembly becomes a mouth. It’s not a human face, but it’s better— it’s a face that’s suggested by the design of the train itself.
Now let’s look at the Thomas the Tank Engine method: a face of what appears to be a grey putty-like material is slapped onto the front panel of the train, obscuring any details that were there, and looking like a giant child had their face shoved into a large panel of flexible concrete.
This same method is used for every Thomas and Friends character: look at Bertie the bus here. Sure, I bitched about the use of the windshield for eyes instead of the headlights for the cars in Pixar’s Cars, but those characters at least worked with the fundamental design of a car.
This bus, with that creepy face shoved into the freaking radiator grille— what the fuck is that? There’s so many other ways to give this bus a face (work with the headlights, windshield, anything), and they just crammed it into the radiator? Who would look at the uniform mesh of a radiator grille and think “now this is something I can really relate to. Like a human.”
This method is fine if you’re trying to make a character out of a featureless wall or a giant slab of rock, maybe vast, open tracts of desert, but for something as richly detailed as a train or a car it’s just lazy. If you’re going to just stick a human-like face on something, you ‘d think it could at least seem to resemble the object in some material way— a steam locomotive face could at least appear to be made of riveted iron or something. Something other than a waxy, colorless grey.
I don’t know why kids aren’t more creeped out by these trains. Maybe they haven’t experienced enough pain yet to see these colorless, fleshy discs and panels as grim reminders of mortality. Maybe they can look at these trains and not see a row of mocking tombstones. Maybe.
I don’t think its exaggerating when I say this is probably the gravest threat to our way of life that mankind has ever encountered.
As someone who genuinely loves quality anthropomorphizing, the popularity of the Thomas trains mocks me. It’s cynical. It’s literally reducing the creation of a character to slapping a face on something. It’s also stands out so glaringly because everything else is so richly illustrated.
The holidays are approaching, and millions of these grey-faced monstrosities will be sold, dulling our children’s appreciation of a truly fine machine face. Please try not to contribute to the downfall of our society. Please take the time to choose toys that show the sort of careful, clever anthropomorphizing that I know our children deserve.
The children. Think of the children.
(Oh, and if you love Thomas the Tank Engine and don’t want your childhood memories destroyed DO NOT CLICK HERE.)