Over its 70-year run, Thomas the Tank Engine has doled out life advice to generations of children from the gentle railways of fictional island Sodor. But the $1 billion franchise, created in 1946 by a British clergyman, has also reigned in heavy criticism along the way, catching flack for its failure to diversify Thomas’ charming band of friends. Now, Thomas is hoping to break up its mostly white, male-dominated cast. In an upcoming animated feature film, Thomas & Friends: The Great Race, the trusty train will meet 13 new, foreign pals, EW has confirmed.
Initiated by Mattel, who bought then-Thomas & Friends owner Hit Entertainment for $680 million in 2012, the inclusive expansion comes after two years of planning. It will introduce the likes of Raul, a “feisty,” “strong,” and “agile” make from Brazil, and Ashimia, a fast, fearless Indian locomotive voiced by Bollywood actress Tina Desai in the film. Four of the new faces are female, and 12 total countries will be represented.
The Great Race is slated for DVD release in September, along with the arrival of related merchandise in August. Following its debut, the movie will air on PBS in late 2016. In some countries, including England, it will have a theatrical release beginning May 22.
While the announcement was a long time coming, some concerns have begun to sprout about the on-screen execution since news of the characters broke late last month. “There is a danger in reducing very complex countries and peoples to singular characteristics. If the trains are only defined by cultural stereotypes, the result will be a calculated, and destructive, nod to diversity and inclusivity,” Tracey Van Slyke, a critic of the program, told The Telegraph.
Still, Mattel is joining a larger push to diversify kids’ programming. Disney introduced its inaugural African American princess in 2009’s Princess and the Frog, and will soon present its first Latina royal. It’s also bolstered its lineup with shows like Doc McStuffins, an animated series about a magical little girl who happens to be black.
Preview the new trains below.
ASHIMA OF INDIA
Ashima is usually found working on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in Southern India, where the steep incline makes the track very dangerous and difficult to climb. So it’s no wonder that a small tank engine like Ashima shows no fear. Beautifully crafted with hand painted decal Ashima’s a fun, feisty and likable engine who is more than happy to help out wherever needed.
THE FLYING SCOTSMAN
The Flying Scotsman is one of the most famous engines in the world. A large steam locomotive with two tenders, the Flying Scotsman holds the record for being the first engine to officially run at 100 mph. The Flying Scotsman has been travelled to Sodor before where he met with his brother Gordon. Now the brothers will compete against each other to see who is the fastest in the Great Race.
All the way from North America, this big engine is not to be messed with. He is big and strong but his competitive nature could be his downfall.
AXEL of BELGIUM
Axel is a smooth, streamlined tender engine built for speed; his good looks and style have made him very popular with fans of steam. Effortlessly cool, he’ll be sure to win over more fans at the Great Railway Show.
RAUL OF BRAZIL
This feisty little tank engine may look like a Diesel but he is in fact a steam engine. All the way from the sunny heights of Brazil, this little shunter is strong and agile, making him the perfect candidate for the Shunting race.
ETIENNE of FRANCE
There is no denying that electricity on the railways is the way of the future, and Etienne is a fast electric locomotive, who has been setting world speed records in his home country of France. And now this formidable engine will be looking to continue his run of good fortune in the Great Race.
GINA of ITALY
This little steam loco certainly packs a punch. Sweet and stylish, Gina can match the boys pound for pound when it comes to shunting freight in the yard. All the way from Italy, Gina will be turning a few heads when she appears in The Great Railway Show.
FRIEDA of GERMANY
Frieda is a sleek blue streamlined engine from Germany. Beautiful and strong, Frieda will be entering the Strongest Engine race. She has come to show that anything boys can do, the girls can do better.
YONG BAO of CHINA
Yong Bao is a kind and faithful tender engine from China, who pulls passenger coaches. He may not be the biggest tender engine or the strongest, but he once cleverly diverted an accident saving hundreds of passengers. Yong Bao was decorated for his bravery and painted bright red, which is a color that symbolizes celebration and happiness. Painted on his Tender is a Tiger which incites a sense of awe and admiration. Like Yong Bao, the Tiger is full of life and embodies the spirit of being driven to achieve and make progress. These qualities make Yong Bao a Really Useful Engine.
IVAN of RUSSIA
Ivan of Russia may look mean, but he is one of the most charismatic characters to be found on the railway. He is a real comedian, who will put a smile on everyone’s face. And he’s especially proud of himself as he is the only Diesel locomotive competing in this year’s Great Railway Show.
CARLOS of MEXICO
Carlos is a proud and happy steam engine from the heart of Mexico. Always wearing a smile, this engine is the life and soul of the Great Railway Show. Originally competing and winning the strongest engine race at the very first Great Railway Show, this engine continues to please the crowds and is now taking part in the Best Decorated Engine Parade.
RAJIV of INDIA
Rajiv is a small tank engine from the East Indian Railway, who carries passengers and goods from Calcutta in the east up to the north of India. Set against the backdrop of the Himalayan Mountains, Rajiv’s beautiful colors help him to stand out from the rest, making him the perfect contender for the Best Decorated Engine Parade.
SHANE of AUSTRALIA
Shane is one of the “Whispering Giants” of the South Australian Railway — a big strong steam engine who was built for passenger and mixed freight work. Shane loves to have fun and his carefree ways have made him many friends on his long journey to the Great Railway Show.