Walk into any Toys R Us looking for toy trains and you’ll be confronted with two stark choices: The venerable Thomas the Tank Engine on one wall and upstart Chuggington on another (a few Brio toy trains may be scattered about, too).
Created by British company Ludorum, the Chuggington property began in 2008 and launched as a TV show on Disney channels in 2010; episodes of Chuggington now air daily on Disney Junior.
Dick Rothkopf, chairman and co-founder of Ludorum, previously founded the company Learning Curve, which manufactured wooden Thomas trains from 1993 to 2003. He’d lived in Europe earlier in life and was well-acquainted with the Thomas property, which began in England as a series of books, first published in the 1940s and written by the Rev. Wilbert Awdry, an Anglican cleric.
TV versions of Thomas first began airing in the mid-1980s and the show still airs today on PBS as Thomas & Friends.
“While we were developing the toys, I had my problems with Thomas as a license,” Rothkopf said from his home office in Colorado. “Yes, (the Thomas characters are) too mean, and it’s terribly gender-biased. The values that are there are very old-fashioned and very little of what’s thought of as modern teamwork. But the license owner was smarter than I was: ‘We have a brand here everybody loves and just because the men are mean to the women and there are very few opportunities for people to speak up’ — it’s very authoritarian — ‘there’s nothing we’re going to do about it because we’re very successful as it stands.’?”
When Rothkopf sold Learning Curve 10 years ago, he set out to build a better, more updated version of Thomas. He teamed up with the former CEO and COO of HIT Entertainment, which produces children’s TV shows, to form Ludorum, which “in some Greek tense means ‘to play,’” Rothkopf explained. (HIT is now owned by Mattel, the current “Thomas” license holder.)
“We decided we would try to develop this different version of a train property,” he said. “It took us about two years to come up with the basic bible for the stories,” working with experienced writers of preschool television and child development experts from Yale. A two-minute pilot was animated by a Shanghai animation company, which sold the BBC on the series for its CBeebies channel. Now there are almost 60 half-hour episodes — with two stories each and an interstitial — and the show has been dubbed by actors with American accents for Disney’s telecasts.
Director/ writer Sarah Ball, who previously directed and helped develop the TV version of “Bob the Builder,” said the prospect of creating a competitor to “Thomas” was not particularly daunting.
“There are lots of shows about animals for kids,” she noted. “Surely there’s room for another train show. Thomas is a very classical property that’s been around for a long time, and we felt that it would be nice to do something very now, very contemporary.”
Ball said from the start it was clear the focus of “Chuggington” would be on young engines, called trainees, whose experiences are relatable to what children ages 2-5 experience as they grow, learn and mature.
The series focuses on several engines (aka “chuggers”), including Wilson, Brewster and Koko, who work and play in and around Chuggington, which does not resemble the English countryside of “Thomas.” It looks more like a bustling urban core that’s located not too far from a desert canyon that would be at home in the American Southwest.
“We wanted to try to keep it so it wasn’t specific to one country or one place,” Ball said. “You could look at it and think it could be almost anywhere.”
Rothkopf said “Chuggington” was designed from the ground up to have international appeal.
“Almost every train you see, every chugger, is based on an actual train,” he said. “A lot of the research was paging through train books.”
Rothkopf, who is on the board of directors of Chicago’s Ounce of Prevention fund, dedicated to quality childhood experiences in the crucial first five years of life, said a primary goal was to make “Chuggington” as gender-neutral as possible so it could inspire boys and girls to be leaders.
“We wanted children to grow up with a sense of personal worth and integrity,” he said.
“I’d come from ‘Bob the Builder,’ where we always made sure we had good, strong female characters,” Ball said. “With preschoolers you have such a responsibility to the audience to make sure you are portraying things and have a good balance.”
As for the toys and commercial exploitation of the property, Rothkopf said it’s an essential component.
“What you get (in license fees) from the broadcasters makes a small dent on the production cost,” he said.
Now the “Chuggington” empire is starting to grow its brand awareness; Hallmark has even made “Chuggington” Christmas ornaments.
“This was a quixotic dream, and when I’d talk to people they said, ‘Dick, you’ve already established Thomas as the dominant train property in the world, how can you possibly think you can make a dent in Thomas’ sales?’” he recalled. “But when I went into the Thomas business, the dominant manufacturer of wooden trains was a company called Brio … and when I sold the company, our sales were three times Brio’s sales. I know the impossible is always possible. It’s just a matter of having the right quality and being consistent and staying with it. So we went into this for the long term and I used a lot of my own personal funds to get everything started, and that’s how it’s worked out.”