HIT Entertainment’s Thomas the Tank Engine (and later Thomas & Friends) has been a fan-favorite among kids on the autism spectrum, thanks in large part to the fact that characters wear their facial expressions so plainly. In fact, the show has been hailed for helping autistic kids to better identify their emotions.
Now, the franchise’s newest film–Thomas & Friends: Journey Beyond Sodor–is taking things a step further. Launching on DVD in 70 countries this summer (including the US and a theatrical release in the UK), the 70-minute film will feature the brand’s first character with autistic qualities. While Theo is not being overtly called autistic by the Mattel-owned company, it’s been pointed out that the character’s qualities are similar to kids on the spectrum.
“Theo very much wears his emotions on his sleeve and is not as comfortable with other people as he is with mechanics,” says Christopher Keenan, SVP of global content and executive producer at Mattel Creations. “He’s very particular. He likes to understand how things work. He likes to understand the world around him, and sometimes there’s difficulty communicating or being understood. So, we think he’s going to be highly relatable.”
Autism has become more of a focus within children’s media lately, with Sesame unveiling its first autistic Muppet, Julia, earlier this spring. Also this year, Hopster released a digital playroom for autistic kids to help kids with sensory processing skills.
Journey Beyond Sodor follows Thomas after he feels underappreciated and leaves Sodor for the first time. He ends up at the Steelworks and realizes the grass is not always greener, but he is able to help the new trains he meets, like Theo. Mattel Creations produced the film with its newest partner, Toronto’s Jam Filled, a division of Boat Rocker Media.
“Every time we do a film, I’m saying it’s our biggest and best yet. But this is really one of the most beautifully animated Thomas productions. The value is just really stellar,” says Keenan. “This is worthy of the theatrical run and will be a great installment in terms of the Thomas library. It’s raised the bar for us.”
The company also raised its expectations when it came to creating characters with a wide variety of personalities that hadn’t been explored before.
“Each of them is very different from the other engines that Thomas knows on Sodor, which is really playing into the diversity of our audience,” says Keenan. “Merlin [pictured], who’s played by Harry Potter actor Hugh Bonneville, is an experimental engine that believes he can turn himself invisible.”
Naturally, toyco Mattel will also release new playthings to complement the film. Launching this year is a brand-new Fisher-Price toy line with playsets based on the new Inventors Scrap Yard Set. And the Mainline Engines Greatest Moment Engine Assistant will hit retail in 2018. Mattel is also in the process of signing on partners for clothing, books, puzzles and other categories to release products in late summer in select markets.
The new Fisher-Price toys will also feature four new trains–Hurricane, Merlin, Lexi, and a Steelwork’s edition of Thomas. Theo will take the form of a die-cast metal train engine that is compatible with the other engines, tracks and playsets–but it will be subject to availability and sold separately.
According to Keenan, Mattel is also looking at completely reinventing Thomas for a new TV show and film.
“We spend a lot of time talking to kids and parents about Thomas & Friends, and about different aspects of the show that could be enhanced,” says Keenan. “We are in production on a yet-to-be-announced version of a Thomas series, as well as another film—both of which I can say will be pretty spectacular.”
The announcements come on the 72nd anniversary of the first-ever Thomas the Tank Engine book, The Three Railway Engines, which was published in May 1945.