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."

The Washington Post