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Mattel Sets Thomas The Tank Engine Makeover With Eye on Global Appeal

Mattel is planning a big makeover for the venerable Thomas the Tank Engine property in the hopes of reinvigorating its prospects as a global film and TV franchise.

Thomas is off to see the world, while his cohort of engines in the Steam Team are set for a shake-up. Henry and Edward are making way for Rebecca and Nia, the first African engine who was developed with help from the United Nations.

“Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures!” will take Thomas to Brazil and the U.S. in the movie, which launches in the summer of 2018, and Australia, China, India and Africa in the TV series of the same name, which will debut on the small screen later that same year. Canadian studio Jam Filled is producing the series.

“The original stories were told at a particular time and in a particular context,” says Christopher Keenan, senior vice president, content and executive producer at Mattel Creations, which has owned “Thomas & Friends” since 2011. “The world has changed so dramatically, and what parents want to instill in their children has evolved; being a global citizen is very much on parents’ minds. They see their kids as the global citizens of the future, which wasn’t the agenda 70 years ago.”

There will be a shorter anchor story in the “Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures!” series, alongside modular elements such as songs, life lessons and music videos. Thomas and his engine buddies are also speeding up.

“There are elements to this we hope will keep kids engaged for longer because we are increasing the pacing, adding a lot more humor, and more adventures and action,” says Keenan.

In another major change, Thomas will break the fourth wall, speaking to the audience directly for the first time, setting up the new locations and also allowing a way into his thoughts.

With the bulk of the growth in toy spending coming from emerging markets, Mattel wants to maximize Thomas’ impact internationally. Yong Bao, a Chinese engine, first seen in the “Thomas & Friends: The Great Race” film appears in the Chinese- themed episode of the series, and other international engines appear through the shows’ run. There is talk, meanwhile, of China-specific content in the future.

Nia is introduced in the film, whereupon Thomas invites her back to Sodor. Mattel and the United Nations worked together over a series of workshops to incorporate five of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, which are borne out in episodes of the new series and in the movie.

“This is the first time we have such an innovative and creative approach to bringing together Sustainable Development Goals and issues of gender equality and women’s empowerment to life with an audience of 3-year-olds and their families,” says Tolulope Lewis Tamoka, program specialist, Africa, at U.N. Women.

Lewis Tamoka also worked with Mattel on the design of the African engine and portrayal of the continent. “I wanted to show a modern image of Africa,” she says. “Of course Africa has safaris and lots of animals, but there are also development happening and infrastructure and commerce.”

The United Nations’ input will not, however, be overt for viewers.

“A subtle message is more effective than ‘The United Nations tells you this,’” says Maher Nasser, director of the outreach division at the U.N.’s department of public information.

Mattel has tweaked Thomas for modern times at a moment when the overarching brand needs work to prevent it running out of steam.

“Our Thomas business remains challenged due, in part, to competitive pressure in the preschool space from powerful content creators,” says Richard Dickson, Mattel, president and COO.

“Thomas” is dubbed into 33 languages and broadcast in more than 100 territories. Mattel executives are determined to introduce yet another generation of kids to the plucky little blue engine and his cadre of friends. In TV and film, the focus is on refreshing the world of Thomas while retaining the safe and trusted feel the stalwart brand imparts.

“Our greatest competition is the younger skewing and preschool properties that appear overnight, shine brightly and are gone in three years. It’s always difficult to compete with the new kids on the block because ‘new’ is always exciting,” says Kennan. But “at the same time, Thomas has sustained over time and we anticipate it will sustain much longer than anything that is riding a trend.”

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