Thomas the Tank Engine and some of his new friends. Picture: Mattel

New York - On a recent weekday afternoon, a corporate executive met with United Nations staffers at the organisation's landmark building high above the East River.

The executive wasn't an energy or environmental mogul looking for a government contract. She was a senior marketing manager for Thomas the Tank Engine, Mattel's musty toy brand about a rail car that speaks. And the UN staffers, in person and Skyped in from around the globe, were there for an unusual purpose - to vet "Thomas" content for its UN-worthiness.

"So, what do you think?" said the manager, Megan Pashel, after playing a clip from a laptop in New York.

"I thought it was excellent - I was really impressed with the representation of gender equality," said Tolulope Lewis-Tamoka, Africa program adviser for UN Women, speaking from Nairobi. "I think this will make a strong impression on boys and girls. And it has gender-sensitive language, which is what UN Women really stands for."

For more than 70 years, young children have been told stories about the mischievous Thomas and his track-bound pals, originally in a British book series and, for much of the past three decades, in a TV show titled Thomas & Friends.

But viewership and merchandise sales have been sharply declining in recent years. So in what principals from both sides say is a first, Mattel has called on the United Nations to help, hoping that an appetite for inclusive characters and "woke" messages will make the property more appealing to modern children - and, maybe equally important, to their parents.

Mattel and the United Nations have been engaged in an 18-month collaboration that has the diplomatic body helping shape story lines and characters on the cable television series, now titled Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! 

When the new-look show launches on Nick Jr, on display will be not just a fresh direction for a toy brand but also a trial balloon of sorts for a new - and, to some, thorny - form of entertainment, one in which global activism and commercial Hollywood are entwined.

"We think this can be a whole new way of collaborating," Richard Dickson, president and chief operating officer of Mattel, said in an interview. "We hope partnerships like this become an example for others."