Underground Ernie Review
If you have ever read Roger Ebert’s review of Thomas And The Magic Railroad - it was by a strange set of linkings that I arrived there - you will know that his main concern with the film is that the eyes on the tank engines roll but their lips do not move. It’s a fair point. George Lucas has, by whatever means ILM carry out their work, made us believe in a world in which a little green man is the most powerful Jedi in the universe, Bryan Singer has shown once more than we’ll believe a man can fly but yet the makers of Thomas The Tank Engine, perhaps revealing a fondness for storytelling from a more innocent era, would have us look at the rolling eyes but not the movement of the lips.
Joella Productions, the name behind Underground Ernie, have clearly taken such criticism of Thomas The Tank Engine on board and have paid some - though how much exactly is open to question and perhaps the law courts - homage to the Rev W Awdry’s creation by creating a series for children set on the London Underground and featuring a cast of computer-animated trains who talk, roll their eyes and express themselves, all done in such a manner as to be suitable for children who find the Pixar films far too brash. Underground Ernie has been written in the manner of such recent British animated shows as Fireman Sam, Bob The Builder and Engie Benjy, taking the traditional route of there being a problem, followed by a rallying round to solve it before everyone reflects on the day, cracking a joke as the sun sets. Or indeed Thomas The Tank Engine, which follows largely the same plotting, with Circle, Victoria, Bakerloo and Hammersmith And City replacing Gordon, Percy, ady, James and Thomas. Consequently, Underground Ernie does a fine job of assuming The Fat Controller's role on the underground network.
Unfortunately, the London Underground isn't quite so attractive as the Island Of Sodor and so rather than leave a nation of troubled children in its wake, who claim depression at the grime of the tube, Underground Takes its trains above ground into leafy suburbs that no matter the efforts of the GLA are still much too bright and shiny for anywhere within the Greater London area. However, that's not the end of its inventiveness as Underground Ernie claims the existence of an international underground network, thereby allowing the likes of Moscow to visit from Russia and Brooklyn from New York. Heaven forbid the London Underground should operate its own network efficiently never mind attempt to work with one that crosses borders and the underwater tunnels that that implies but Undergound Ernie would seem to say that such things do run smoothly. Underground Ernie and his colleagues, Millie and Mr Rails, seemingly able to do what thousands of London Underground employees fail to do daily.
The seven episodes in this collection include Snow Go!, which sees the arrival of a pair of ice skaters, Sasha and Natasha, from Russia whilst Ernie frets about keeping the lines free of snow, and Pop Decoy in which Jubilee must find a way to get pop superstar Sam 7 to his concert venue without being interrupted by thousands of screaming fans. Taking in Sir Clunkalot, in which Ernie gets dressed up for a medieval fete and frightens Bakerloo, Mr Rails Never Fails - the maintenance man has a birthday - and Brooklyn and Rocky Two Shoes, the disc ends with Catnapped and Caught Purple Handed. The stories are, as is all too common with children's shows, only mildly entertaining with there being very little to capture the imagination of more demanding or slightly older children, even being those at primary school.
Underground Ernie isn't as charming as Bob The Builder, with it using the kind of computer animation that suggests everyone has difficulty in the coordination of their movements. Arms flail wildly, heads bob about with a complete lack of control and legs...what about his legs. Jake The Peg would appear to have more control over his extra leg than Ernie does with the two that came as standard. With the voice of Gary Lineker being used to given Ernie a character - and in the combining of 'Lineker' and 'character' in the same sentence, you'll realise how much of an oxymoron that is - it's rather an uninspired affair, lacking the feeling of comfort that comes with an episode of Bob The Builder or Fireman Sam. The casting of Gary Lineker doesn't help nor does its location on the London Underground but like so many children's shows, it comes down to its supporting cast. Lineker wouldn't have been so bad had he been surrounded by interesting characters but try as they might with Bakerloo and Victoria, who are featured as a Sherlock Holmes-type train and the Queen, respectively, they can't do much with Circle (a bit of a hippy), Jubilee (into gadgets) and Hammersmith And City (a train with a face on either end, one being Hammersmith and the other City). Interesting enough on a single viewing or so, there isn't enough to draw one back to Underground Ernie for a second or third episode, never mind an entire DVD of them.
At first it would look as though Underground Ernie has fallen victim to the same thing that blighted many children's film and television releases on DVD, being that the quality of the picture was barely thought out at all. This would seem to stem with the thought that it doesn't actually matter what something looks like as kids will watch it anyway. Underground Ernie looks awful, with blurring, ghosting of the image and a use of colour that might blind anyone whose eyes are in the least bit sensitive. But then I remembered that it was exactly the same as on its broadcast over the summer months on CBeebies. Apparently Joella Productions spent £4m on these 26x12minute episodes, which may be a great deal of money for such a thing, but it doesn't look a good deal better than the FMV that came with the average videogame five or six years ago around about the time of the original Playstation. In fact, when it was done better then, as it was on Silent Hill or G-Police, it looked considerably better than Underground Ernie does now. Then again, there is some talk that Underground Ernie has sat on the shelves for some years, during that time the BBC took their time to get around to buying it and then delaying it after the July bombings of 2005, at which time its broadcast would have been ill-timed. Otherwise, the soundtrack does what it's called upon to do but is only ever a reasonable one, lacking in any use of the rear channels and sounding a little distorted at times. Finally, there are no subtitles on any of the episodes.
There are a whole bunch of Interactive Games on this DVD, each one of which bears some connection to the seven episodes on this DVD. They begin with Mr Rails' Perfect Snowman in which the viewer must, with very little guidance, build the maintenance man's perfect snowman. Sam 7 lets the viewer remix his pop hits whilst Ernie To The Rescue allows the Underground supervisor to rescue a damsel in distress via the aid of a castle and some maths problems. To keep all age ranges happy, this one allows the viewer to set the difficulty, with the simplest level asking 5+1=? with the most challenging asking 6x6=? or 37+17=?
The fourth game is a Party Memory Game that asks the viewer to remember a series of cards relating to a party before they're turned over with the fifth asking the viewer to help complete a map of the Underground to aid Brooklyn. The last two games on the disc are one in which the viewer must find some kittens hidden in the train yard before What Am I?, the final game on the disc that asks the viewer to work out an answer based on a series of clues. Unfortunately, this last game was somewhat wayward in its controls with the game telling me that it was not an anteater after I had clearly selected the right answer of it being an elephant. There's nothing like a cheat, not even in an interactive DVD game.
Actually, it’s not like any underground journey I’ve ever been on from my years in London. There is not a tramp pissing in the centre aisle of a carriage on the Circle Line, there is not a man fondling himself whilst he takes photos of the legs of the women opposite and there is not a drunk falling into the gap between the rails as a Central Line train approached the station. There is not a woman sat opposite me without any knickers on, there is not a strange man falling asleep on my shoulder and there is not a single rat in sight. But there is a supervisor in the shape of Ernie himself, which is much more than I ever saw on several years of travelling daily on the underground. Clearly fiction!
Otherwise, this isn't bad but based on my own experience - actually that of my three children aged two, four and six - it really only held the attention of my youngest, who really was quite fond of it but is at that stage where the sight of real people on television hold no interest to her. Unfortunately, as much as it is superficially similar to Bob The Builder, it lacks that show's sense of scale, with neither the underground able to compete with the vistas of Bobsville and Sunflower Valley nor the tube trains of Underground Ernie being able to compare with Scoop, Dizzy, Muck, Lofty and Spud. Diverting enough, it's not a particularly memorable show and in spite of CBeebies' efforts to promote the show, I doubt if it will ever be remembered as a classic.