The new CGI animated toon will launch with a feature length movie set for release in September 2018 and a following new 26×11 minute series, which will see Thomas trek his way around Sodor and the wider world, including China, India and part of Africa.
For the new development, Thomas producer Mattel has worked with the UN to weave a range of messages around a range of its 17 sustainable development goals; which include helping life on land and water, climate action, an end to poverty and more.
Christopher Keenan, executive producer of the show, tells TBI: “What’s important about that relationship is that the target audience they were trying to reach is what they define as the global citizens of tomorrow and that is literally who our Thomas audience is.
“It’s an audience that is increasingly aware of the world around them. So it was sort of a perfect that they were trying to reach them through entertainment and it’s an audience we’re already reaching through entertainment.”
Gender balance has been a particular focus for the new iteration of Thomas, and the creation of Nia, a new African female engine that will appear in both the movie and as a series regular, fitting in perfectly with a core goal for the UN – gender equality.
Nia will also join series regular Emily and new character Rebecca in the series. The core ‘steam team’ will now be made up of three girls and four boys who live at Tidmouth sheds replacing the former six boys, one girl ratio. Well-loved green and blue engines Henry and Edward, will take a step back only occasionally re-appearing for specific episodes.
Ian McCue, producer for the new show, says: “The big challenge with taking Thomas around the world is making sure we tick all sorts of cultural sensitive boxes, that we make sure we’re doing the right thing from the design of Nia, to the voicing of Nia, and again the UN team have been totally a big part of the decisions we’ve made for the design of the new engine.”
Mattel also worked with the Royal African Society to make sure that everything about Nia is culturally appropriate and authentic from her character to her design.
McCue adds: “We came to the UN after an initial meeting to be able to say that we feel comfortably that we’ve got six sustainable development that we’re going to be able to cater for, and they were absolutely over the moon. Since then we’ve had a lot of back a forth with them because we’ve sort of wanted to make sure that everything we’re doing is right.”
New Thomas, new format
Outside of the UN partnership, other big changes have also taken place in Sodor. Thomas will now have a different format, with a new theme tune in tow to replace the familiar lull that has become popular in TV over the past three decades.
The new format will see Thomas take a more prominent role as narrator, replacing the formally adult voiceovers from stars such as Ringo Starr to Alec Baldwin. The well-loved engine will now pop out for segments on screen to speak to his audience in first person and interact with them.
The narrative stories will be made shorter to introduce other elements like songs, life lessons, fantasies and more.
Keenan tells TBI that the reason for such changes is to give the show more energy and so that it can live beside many Thomas iterations in the ecosystem.
“One of the reasons that we purposefully made it a bit more segmented or modular in each of the 11-minute episodes is so that various pieces and parts could live on various platforms,” says Keenan.