He’s one of the most simple and innocent childhood characters out there. Thomas the Tank Engine, with his primary colors and calm, thought demeanor, is seen as the epitome of classic children’s entertainment. While Mickey and Minnie were marketed to death, and Mister Rogers received a cartoon update, Thomas the Tank Engine has always been a consistent brand. Now, it’s been bought by Mattel and parents have some justifiable concerns.
Mattel bought the PBS standard cartoon and all its licensing when it purchased Hit Entertainment, the British company behind Thomas, Barney, Angelina Ballerina and Bob the Builder. But the toy giant believes that Thomas the Train is the brand that’s ripe for a little revamping. They’re planning to spend millions of dollars updating, creating web portals, and marketing the locomotive and his friends to a new generation.
David Allmark, executive vice president of Mattel’s Fisher-Price brands, explained “It’s been a brand that has been pretty bereft of investment. We really believe that we can grow this on a worldwide basis, particularly in Latin America and Asia.” He also added that the next few series of television shows will need some to be more fast-paced. “Some of it needs livening up a little bit,” he said.
All of this could spell trouble for Thomas traditionalists who enjoy the big blue engine just the way he is. After all, toy companies don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to the whole “modernizing” bit. Anyone remember when Strawberry Shortcake was bought by Hasbro and introduced to the 21st century?
And what about the My Littlest Pet Shop revamp, that transformed one of the few toy sets marketed towards girls without any princesses or fashionistas in sight into a thin, pretty girl with enormous eyes chasing cute boys with the help of her animal friends?
And don’t think that it’s just female characters that get the “modernized” treatment, with increasingly problematic body proportions and stereotypical interests. GI Joe went from a classic, average-looking soldier to a beefed up action hero with oddly enormous feet.
All signs point to modernized toys losing their classic appeal and morphing into the very worst of our cultural stereotypes. The muscles and doe eyes get bigger. The relatability to real life gets smaller. And kids miss out on the traditional characters that their parents loved. It’s sad to think of Thomas the Train following this oh-so-familiar path.
Thomas as a brand has grown with very little marketing and advertising spin. It’s toy lines consist of old-fashioned wooden train sets. My daughter still loves to pull hers out from time to time, even though she’s apparently passed the young girls’ target age for Thomas. I just hope that Mattel respects how this children’s character has been able to thrive without all of their new marketing approaches and “livened up” story lines. It’s survived because children and adults appreciate the classic simplicity. We have to see that legacy continue.