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.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Will Arnett Joins BBC Soccer Comedy

    Will Arnett Joins BBC Comedy ‘The First Team’ From ‘The Inbetweeners’ Producers

    Will Arnett and Chris Geere will star as the chairman and coach of an English soccer team, respectively, in “The First Team,” a new comedy for the BBC from the producers of “The Inbetweeners.” The series will follow the off-the-field misadventures of three young soccer players played by Shaquille Ali-Yebuah (“The Feed”), Jack McMullen (“The [...]

  • 'Game of Thrones' Fashion at the

    'Game of Thrones,' Fashion Slayers: HBO's Drama Winners Also Shined on the Carpet

    The cast of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” knew how to make an entrance (and an exit) on Sunday night at the Primetime Emmy Awards. Before winning the night’s final trophy, Best Drama Series, stars like Emilia Clarke and Gwendoline Christie pulled out some fantastical looks on the purple carpet, with Clarke donning the mother-of-all-earrings by [...]

  • Emmys Fashion: Best Dressed on the

    Emmys: Best Fashion on the Purple Carpet

    The biggest stars in television stepped out on the Emmy purple carpet on Sunday night in a stunning display of gowns and vivacious looks. Fashion expert Brooke Jaffe, who visited Variety’s set after the show, picked some of her favorite dresses of the night, which included Zendaya’s truly enviable Vera number and Mandy Moore in [...]

  • Emmys 2019: Biggest Winners and Losers

    Winners and Losers of the 71st Emmy Awards

    The 71st Emmy Awards was a spectacular affair for the Brits, while broadcast networks all but vanished. Watch Variety’s Elaine Low and Audrey Yap unpack TV’s biggest night of the year, which saw “Game of Thrones” and “Fleabag” take home the top prizes, winning best drama series and best comedy series, respectively. Popular on Variety

  • Atmosphere71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Show,

    Emmy Viewers Not 'Feelin' Good' About Bizarre Music Choices

    It was known ahead of time that the Emmy Awards planned to dispense with a traditional orchestra or pit band for the walk-up and bumper music. What wasn’t anticipated was that the music choices were being outsourced to a bar mitzvah DJ in Des Moines. Or, very possibly, it was a local who had found [...]

  • Atmosphere71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Show,

    Emmys: Big 4 Broadcasters Post Lowest Combined Wins Ever

    The Big 4 broadcast networks put a cap on their worst year in Emmy history on Sunday night. ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC brought home just 16 Emmy Awards — the lowest combined total in history for the four major broadcast networks. The previous low was 19 combined wins in 2016. Last year, the networks [...]

  • Karamo BrownLA LGBT Center 'Hearts of

    Karamo Brown Addresses Backlash Against Sean Spicer Comments

    Karamo Brown has doubled down on comments he made about his fellow “Dancing with the Stars” contestant Sean Spicer, in which he promoted the idea of meeting political adversaries “in the middle.” The amicable “Queer Eye” host received criticism when he said he was “most excited to meet” Spicer ahead of the show’s 28th season, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content