The animated film Sodor’s Legend of the Lost Treasure, a spinoff of the popular children’s franchise “Thomas & Friends,” is coming to China, marking the first time any movie carrying the brand of U.S. toymaking giant Mattel will be released in the country’s theaters.
Dubbed into Mandarin, the film will be distributed by state-run Huaxia Film Distribution, and will debut in 5,000 cinemas across the country on February 20, making it the first non-Chinese kids’ film to screen after the weeklong Lunar New Year holidays, which begin February 8. The original English-language version features the voice of Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne.
Mattel subsidiary HIT Entertainment, a U.K-based preschool entertainment specialist, produced the feature-length film. Mattel acquired HIT, home to children’s TV favorites “Thomas the Tank Engine” and “Bob the Builder,” for $680 million in late 2011.
Mattel’s in-house film studio, Playground Productions, has produced a slate of Barbie, Hot Wheels and Monster High TV movies and shorts, but has yet to emulate the success of Hasbro, whose eponymous studio has churned out hits such as the hugely successful Transformers film franchise. In July 2014, Transformers IV, was the first film to cross the $300 million mark at China’s box office.
Peter Broegger, Mattel East Asia’s senior vice president and general manager for Asia Pacific, hailed the Sodor release as “historic” and “unprecedented,” coming, as it does, after two years of planning.
“The reach and scale of this theatrical release means we can engage with families and children in a whole new way by bringing Thomas to the big screen across the country,” Broegger said.
The film has been released in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Sodor will also hit Japanese cinemas in April.
The Los Angeles-based toymaker says the “kid friendly” content of “Thomas & Friends” has been “incredibly well received in China” and hopes that brand awareness will help draw families to theaters.
State-run broadcaster China Central Television reached a deal with HIT for “Thomas & Friends” in 2008, and the TV series is now available to streaming stream in China via platforms such as iQiyi, YoukuTudou, QQ, Sohu, LeTV, TMall Box, and BesTV. Mattel said that Sodor will be released on streaming platforms in China fairly soon after it is big screen debut.
The “Thomas & Friends” brand first appeared 70 years ago in The Railway Series books. Worldwide sales of Thomas the Tank Engine toys rose during the fourth quarter, helping to boost Mattel shares on the NASDAQ this week.
Mattel has had mixed success launching its toys in the Chinese market — it closed its flagship Shanghai Barbie store in 2011, just two years after its grand opening. Mattel’s more learning-focused Fisher-Price line was the 14th biggest toy brand in China as of late 2015, according to market research firm Euromonitor.