NEW YORK (AP) — Girls are finally getting a bigger role in Thomas the Tank Engine's boy-dominated world.
Mattel, the toy maker that owns the Thomas brand, will add two female main characters to the "Thomas & Friends" TV series next year. Nia and Rebecca will appear in each episode and help fix the gender imbalance at the shed where Thomas and the other main characters live: Three of the seven engines at Tidmouth Sheds will be female, up from just one.
The gender shakeup is just one of the many changes coming to the 30-year-old show. Thomas visits real countries for the first time; the animation will move at a faster pace; there's a new theme song; the characters will crack more jokes; and the narrator will be gone, replaced by the voice of Thomas.
It's all an effort to shake Thomas' stodgy image, compete with flashier preschool shows and fight a drop in toy sales. It's a big risk for the franchise, which got its start as a book series more than 70 years ago. To avoid any missteps, Mattel consulted with parents, young fans and even the United Nations. In all, the company spent two years working on the makeover.
"It's such a huge shift," said Kate Schlomann, a vice president of branding at Mattel. "We want to make sure we're here another 70 years."
Nia, an engine from Kenya, will make her debut next summer in the movie "Big World! Big Adventures!" and then join the TV series in the fall. Experts at the U.N. advised producers with Nia's name (it means "purpose" in Swahili) and helped select the African pattern that runs across Nia's body.
"When you're designing an engine from any country, you want to be spot on," said Schlomann.
Rebecca's origins are less exotic. She'll come from the Mainland near Thomas' fictional island of Sodor. She'll first appear on screens in the TV series next fall. Henry and Edward will get the boot from Tidmouth Sheds to make room for the two new girls, but the boy engines will still appear on the show from time to time. (Mattel refers to the characters as girls and boys, even though they are engines.) Producers wanted Nia and Rebecca to have starring roles, and they'll join Emily, who has been the only girl engine among the crew of main characters for about 13 years. Other girls in Thomas' universe have had smaller roles.
"We have added new female characters before, but I think, with a show like Thomas, they tend to fall into the background after initial introduction," said Ian McCue, a "Thomas & Friends" producer. "What we wanted to do here was really bring these two female characters to the forefront."
Thomas will meet other female characters, such as an airplane in Australia. And in India, there's a female train controller in charge of the railway, another first for the show, Mattel said.
"Gender equality is something that's really important to us in this new series and going forward," said producer Micaela Winter.
Viewership of "Thomas & Friends" is evenly split between girls and boys, Mattel said, and girls are more likely than boys to watch every week. But the brand hasn't catered to them. Girls will be in more Thomas toy commercials and on the box. Nia toys will be on sale next fall after the movie release, and Rebecca toys will follow in 2019. More T-shirts, pajamas and bed sheets will be aimed at girls.
"I think it's actually giving them what they want," said Schlomann.
Mattel has made changes to its other toy brands in an attempt to be more inclusive and appeal to today's parents. Barbie and Ken dolls now come in different skin colors, body shapes and hair types. And the first boy doll was added to the American Girl lineup earlier this year.
Mattel took control of "Thomas & Friends" five years ago, after it bought production company Hit Entertainment for $680 million. Since then, it has tried to put its stamp on the brand. Engines from India and China, for example, rode into Sodor last year to add some diversity and appeal to viewers who live in the 110 countries that watch "Thomas & Friends."
But Thomas has big competition from shows on Disney Junior and Nick Jr., whose characters are also in toy stores with Thomas. Mattel said in July that second-quarter sales at its Fisher-Price unit, which Thomas is a part of, slipped 3 percent compared to the same period the year before. "Our Thomas business remains challenged," said Mattel Inc. Chief Operating Officer Richard Dickson in a July conference call with investors. But he said there were a couple of new opportunities for the franchise, including girls.
As for Thomas, Mattel said it was fans who wanted the blue engine to get out of Sodor more often.
"One was a little boy saying, 'Trains can go anywhere, but Thomas never goes anywhere,'" said McCue. "That really got us thinking."
Thomas will spend half of the 26 TV episodes on railroads in other countries, such as Australia and China. Producers and writers met with the U.N., which has an office that works with movie and TV productions, to help represent different cultures, such as when Thomas takes part in the Chinese New Year.
"It's really about learning about the world and bringing the world into the living room for a preschooler," said Schlomann. "Which we haven't done before."
Associated Press video journalist James Brooks in London contributed to this report.
Contact Joseph Pisani at http://twitter.com/josephpisani