For little kids,Thomas the Tank Engine is like the Beatles, the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus combined, only on rails. His adventures on the Island of Sodor, a fictional island off the British Mainland and near the Isle of Man, are hypnotic.
Kids have read about the British character since the 1940s and watched "Thomas & Friends" on television since the '80s. The adventures of Thomas and his friends, a group of steam engines with human characteristics, have always been told through the voice of a narrator. Through the years, celebrity narrators have included Ringo Starr, George Carlin, Alec Baldwin and Pierce Brosnan -- until now.
This week, for the first time, Thomas will speak in his own voice in a PBS special and DVD called "Thomas & Friends: Hero on the Rails."
Thomas is also getting a CGI makeover. Previously, "Thomas & Friends," the TV series, was produced using stop-motion animation
In an exclusive interview on "Good Morning America Weekend," ABC's John Berman got to ask Thomas about the new changes. Here's an excerpt:
Thomas: "Hello, John! Thank you for visiting us on the Island of Sodor."
John Berman: "Hello, Thomas. Viewers hear you speak in your own voice for the first time. Why now?"
Thomas: "Yes, my engine friends and I will be really useful and help tell the stories about our adventures. We are very pleased that our unique personalities shine through!"
Berman: "You and your friends are getting a makeover. How will this change your new adventures?"
Thomas: "Fizzling fireboxes! We will have more exciting adventures and possibilities! We are proud of how rich destinations on Sodor now appear. But, we are most proud of our storytelling heritage, which always remains true."
The executives at Hit Entertainment took great care in keeping Thomas' voice true to his personality.
"We think it personifies Thomas exactly," said Rick Glankler, senior vice president of global brands for Hit Entertainment. "It's a nice precocious cheeky little engine that is imperfect and that gets in trouble, yet is very passionate about both his friends and his ability to be a real, useful engine."
There is, of course, also a business side to this. A chance for Hit Entertainment, the company that produces "Thomas & Friends," to make a splash and also stay modern.
Call it a game-changing innovation such as when the silent film star Greta Garbo started doing "talkies."
"Thomas is like Garbo," said Chris Byrne, content director of Timetoplaymag.com, a Web site dedicated to the best from the toy industry. "Thomas talks. It's a big big thing in the life of that property. I think it makes it more personal for kids. It makes it more possible for them to relate to Thomas."
Several Old Favorites Undergo New Transformations
Thomas isn't the only kids' character to get a modern makeover recently.
Dora the Explorer, star of the hit TV series on Nick Jr., got a new fashion-forward makeover this year, ditching her shorts and hiking boots for a short dress and ballet slippers.
And Strawberry Shortcake, the popular doll and cartoon star of the 1980s, has lost her bloomers and red curls for a hipper outfit with lip gloss and long, straight hair.
In order for kids' characters to stay relevant, they need to keep up with the changing tastes of their fans. And Thomas the Tank Engine knows that.
"If you are going to make over a classic character, the first thing you need to do is take a look at the world around kids today," said Byrne. "What are they seeing? What are the most popular things in their world? So, for example, going from 2-D to CGI. There's a lot of CGI out there, so it feels contemporary. Kids relate to it."