By default, we are a Nick Jr. family. If I ever do have to choose an on-demand category or buy a DVD, I tend to turn to Nick Jr. My daughter Maia’s favorite shows have always been under the Nick umbrella, including Wonder Pets!, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, Yo Gabba Gabba!, Olivia, Max & Ruby and, yes, The Fresh Beat Band. So, most likely I would have missed the debut of Playhouse Disney’s new preschool property Chuggington. However, a review copy was sent my way and Maia and I had a chance to play critic and see what the other stations had to offer.
For those outside the industry, Chuggington is, in fact, not a new show. This train-themed series has actually been a global phenomenon since it made its debut in the UK in September 2008. Since then, it has also found a place on programming blocks in countries like France, Australia, Germany, Japan and Canada. The show was also produced by pedigreed talent with experience in locomotive-themed entertainment. Created by London-based Ludorum, this company was founded by former CEO of HIT Entertainment, rights holder to Thomas & Friends. The other Ludorum co-founder was the former CEO of Learning Curve, the license holder for Thomas & Friends toys. Clearly these guys know their trains.
However, Chuggington is definitely not a Thomas rip-off. This series is completely CGI 3D and with faster-paced plotting than the blue locomotive. The show focuses on three colorful “trainees,” Brewster the diesel-electric train, Koko the electric locomotive and Wilson the red engine train. The characters have their own distinct personalities, as well as individual strengths and weaknesses, as they prepare to become full-service trains. Each episode has them traveling the rails through different locales and meeting reoccurring human and train characters, while learning real-life lessons that will resonate with the preschool audience.
My initial thought on watching the Chuggington screener was: “I wish they had this when I was a kid!” A lover of trains as a youth and an adult, watching the trains glide along the roller-coaster like tracks is a locomotive-lovers delight. The show also manages to integrate specific, relatively technica,l day-to-day operations of trains throughout the stories, sure to entertain and educate parents as well. It does this while cleverly mixing the “social-emotional lessons” promised in press materials.
My co-critic, though, is a three-year-old girl. I was excited about the show because of my own personal interest in trains, but I actually doubted that Chuggington would have female toddler appeal, despite the press release’s suggestion that it targeted both demographics. However, to my surprise, Maia seemed to take to it right away. Her first question when watching a new show or film is usually “is there a girl in it?” So, she was quite happy to see Koko, the green and purple bullet-train. She also seemed particularly interested in watching how the trains would resolve each problem, and even enjoyed the “suspense” element which was refreshingly heightened for a preschool show. Most of all, she has been singing the theme song non-stop, something you will find yourself doing whether you like it or not.
Based on Maia’s reaction, and its global success, I have a feeling this show will build a following Stateside as well. With a robust supporting website, toy deals in place, and a big PR and marketing push underway, we won’t be the only home singing “Chuggington!”
Chuggington debuted January 18th on Playhouse Disney and airs Tuesday through Fridays at 10:30 a.m. and weekends at 7:30 a.m.