Thomas the Tank Engine has been around since 1945 when he first debuted in the Railway Series books written by Wilbert Awdry. While the character got his start in the pages of children’s books, there’s no denying that Thomas reached a new level of popularity with the television program Thomas & Friends. After kicking off its run in 1984, this production lifted Thomas and his comrades to new heights of popularity. It was only inevitable that such a hit small-screen program would get a feature film, which arrived in the form of the 2000 motion picture Thomas and the Magic Railroad.
Given the enduring popularity of Thomas in all forms of media, not to mention how every property that gained popularity in the 1980s is dominating pop culture right now, it’s utterly shocking that the characters never returned to the big screen. However, various film studios have tried multiple times to get this project back into theaters, though none have yielded successful results yet.
The Initial Troubles For Another Theatrical Thomas Movie
The troubles for having Thomas the Tank Engine move full steam ahead as a long-term franchise were apparent from the get-go thanks to Thomas and the Magic Railroad failing to take off at the box office. Grossing just under $20 million worldwide, it didn’t look like there was much demand for further Thomas features in the confines of theatrical spaces. A few years after this, feature-length direct-to-video movies starring Thomas and his friends would begin lining up shelves at stores across the globe. Thomas soon became a fixture of this market, which was often a go-to destination for projects aimed at very young children.
Interestingly, though, this did not spell doom for Thomas’s exploits in theaters entirely. Occasionally, these direct-to-video titles would get theatrical releases in a handful of foreign territories. The 2009 title The Great Discovery, for example, made $188,317 from a theatrical run in South Korea. In 2015, meanwhile, Thomas & Friends: Sodor’s Legend of the Lost Treasure managed to crack $3.61 million worldwide largely thanks to a $2.51 million haul in China. These numbers and releases showed the enduring global reach of these characters, but these still didn’t count as purely theatrical movie experiences. The world was still waiting for a new feature starring Thomas that was exclusive to movie theaters across the globe.
In late 2009, Hit Entertainment announced that Thomas would finally get that kind of big-screen adventure once again with a brand-new movie that would launch in 2011. Josh Klausner was the first screenwriter attached to the project, with his credits of Shrek the Third and the then-upcoming Date Night serving as an indicator that the producers of this new Thomas movie were angling to make the feature a bit more all-ages appealing in its humor and style. That original 2011 release date would come and go with no new Thomas film, but some fresh news did arrive in June 2011 with the hiring of director Shane Acker. The project would now be a live-action/CGI hybrid, with digital versions of Thomas and pals inhabiting the real world.
Given that Acker was fresh off the grim animated feature 9, he was a peculiar choice to helm a Thomas movie, though once again it appears that the creative team behind this endeavor was being chosen to make something that wouldn’t exclusively appeal to two-year-olds (while also not alienating that market). Within this announcement, Acker also revealed that the plot would revolve around a young boy and his distant father who travel to the magical realm of Sodor (where Thomas and his friends live). The dad has apparently been there as a kid but can no longer remember the magic of his adolescence. This was a classic Hook-style storyline that Acker and company were hoping to lean on to revive Thomas as a big-screen star.
Why Have These Thomas Movies Gone Nowhere?
This Shane Acker take on a Thomas and Friends movie, though, would also never see the light of day. It was plagued by a problem that’s served as the primary obstacle to getting Thomas back on the big screen: corporate politics. The Thomas and Friends program was originally owned by Gullane entertainment, which was subsequently absorbed into Hit Entertainment in 2002. That company would then get bought by Mattel in 2012. Shifting between so many corporate owners alone was enough to jeopardize the existence of further Thomas the Tank Engine movies. However, it didn’t help that Thomas was never owned by someone with deep enough pockets to self-finance a movie. If the character had been the property of Warner Bros. or Disney, we’d be on our 17th theatrical Thomas movie.
Since independent entertainment outlets have had ownership of the property, though, that’s made it more difficult for there to be enough financing and corporate stability for further Thomas films to exist. Even ownership by Mattel, a seemingly massive corporation with lots of cash lining its pockets, hasn’t made it any easier for Thomas the Tank Engine to once again travel to movie theaters around the world. After all, Mattel has struggled to get any film adaptations of its properties off the ground, save for the upcoming Barbie (which also spent years in development hell). Live-action interpretations of Masters of the Universe, Hot Wheels, the Viewmaster, and other Mattel toys have been frequently announced, but never made it to the silver screen.
These recurring issues make it no surprise that yet another proposed Thomas the Tank Engine feature, this time from Mattel’s film department, has also never materialized. In October 2020, director Marc Forster, the filmmaker behind Finding Neverland and Christopher Robin, was announced as the helmer for a new Thomas feature. Forster’s filmography hews closer to what one might expect a Thomas and Friends movie to skew towards than Acker’s body of work, but there have been no updates on the feature in the three years since this news dropped. As of right now, it looks like Thomas the Tank Engine, despite enduring as a beloved children’s icon for roughly 80 years, will never get to steam into movie theaters again.