Thomas & Mattel Creations branch out in a big way

Christopher Keenan dishes on newly formed Mattel Creations and the multi-cultural approach to its upcoming Thomas & Friends feature.
April 6, 2016

Thomas the Tank Engine’s goals for 2016 are looking ambitious, thanks to Mattel Creations’ newly announced international lineup of whistle-blowing characters for the brand’s forthcoming movie, Thomas & Friends The Great Race.

The CG-animated production—the 11th movie for the beloved children’s property—will launch for television, theatrical and DVD release this summer, featuring 13 new engines representing 12 countries in total, and signifying the IP’s most international cast of characters to date.

A UK theatrical premiere is set for May 22 through distributor National Amusements, and additional roll-outs will follow in Australia, Italy and China. TV broadcasters already signed on include PBS (US), DHX (Canada), Super RTL (Germany), Gulli (France), MiniMini (Poland), Minimax (Eastern Europe), Medialaan (Belgium) and RTL Telekids (Benelux). And DVDs are expected to hit the US, the UK and Australia in August, in conjunction with a consumer products program featuring a Fisher-Price toy line of 11 new engines and playsets, as well as clothing, books and puzzles.

The movie, which is animated by Toronto’s Arc Productions, follows Thomas from his island home to the mainland, where he longs to represent Sodor at the Great Railway Show—the world’s biggest international competition for engines. With design work inspired by real trains from each country, the characters include Axel (Belgium), Raul (Brazil), Etienne (France), Gina (Italy), Racing Vinnie (North America), Frieda (Germany), Yong Bao (China), Ivan (Russia), Carlos (Mexico), Rajiv (India), Shane (Australia) and The Flying Scotsman (Britain).

A second new engine from India, Ashima (pictured), is voiced by popular Bollywood actress Tina Desai (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and, according to Christopher Keenan, who was elevated to SVP of content development and production following last week’s formation of Mattel Creations, Ashima is the strongest female lead in the brand’s 70-year history.

In fact, Keenan spoke with Kidscreen about why the movie’s launch, plus newly announced Fireman Sam and Bob the Builder content and greenlit projects WellieWishers and Dreamtopia, mark the beginning of a more centralized strategy for the toyco’s original brand-based content across theatrical, TV and digital outlets.

How would you describe the more global approach to the new Thomas brand?

Thomas has been around for a very long time and is constantly evolving. What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is that the fan base is growing globally, and so too are our content and business offerings. The Great Race is really our first-ever centralized global digital initiative, which includes a robust merchandising program. Fisher-Price is launching a multi-million-dollar global effort around the film to help accelerate the brand’s ongoing success. From the films and series, to the DVDs, YouTube shorts, social media engagement, apps and products, there are so many different points of entry for fans.

How important was it to expand gender representation and bring diversity to Sodor?

This is the first time that Thomas has been paired with a female heroine. To have a non-Western female friend who plays a pivotal role is groundbreaking and noteworthy. This is also the first time that we’re doing a true, traditional musical with Thomas.

What are the short- and long-term goals for Mattel Creations?

The long-term goal, which is what Catherine Balsam-Schwaber (Mattel CCO and head of Mattel Creations) and I have been talking a lot about recently, is to deliver on the promise of being a center of excellence, not only for the company, but also for the kids and family entertainment industry. We want to produce the best content that’s ever come out of any of the three organizations—Playground Productions, HIT and American Girl—which are all coming together as Mattel Creations. In the short term, the goal is to align the teams on the different campuses and take full advantage of all of the talent and experience that we have under the three roofs. We also want to prioritize the enormous number of brands and characters that are within the Mattel portfolio.

Will you be managing Mattel’s partnership with creative crowdsourcing platform Tongal?

I will be very involved with Tongal. They’ve been a terrific partner in the past (on projects for Thomas the Tank Engine, American Girl and Monster High), and we’re very interested in working with them in the future.

How is Mattel Creations’ production strategy going to leverage SVOD distribution?

Since we have our content distribution teams spread across HIT, Playground and American Girl, we have a lot of seasoned executives with really strong relationships with Netflix and other platforms like Amazon, with which we have a production deal for American Girl. For us, it’s about finding the right partner for the intended audience. Sometimes it’s about global reach. And sometimes it’s about targeted demographics, but it all comes back to the stories you want to tell. Netflix is a brilliant model and we want to explore it more, but it’s one of a number of potential partners.

What will be your biggest challenge in your new role at Mattel?

The biggest challenge, ultimately offering the greatest reward, is to find a healthy balance between art and commerce. We want to enhance the experience of the audience, but this is a business, so we need to be mindful of that as well. Frankly, it’s a challenge that everyone in the children’s entertainment industry faces.

About The Author
Jeremy is the Features Editor of Kidscreen specializing in the content production, broadcasting and distribution aspects of the global children's entertainment industry. Contact Jeremy at



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