Sunday, November 26, 2006

Thomas the Money-Making Engine

Over Thankgiving at the family home, I was exposed to a major problem that threatens households across our nation. It has nothing to do with breast feeding, reasonable day care, or the price of Huggies. Nor is it about affordable health care or killing several innocent adults to get your hands on a PlayStation 3. It is something more sinister.

The rot to which I refer is called “Thomas the Tank Engine.” And we have literature to blame.

For the uninitiated—that is, for those without children—this Thomas plague looks like just another innocent juvenile obsession. “Thomas” is a series of children’s books featuring a steam train engine with round eyes and moon face. He and his train “friends” reside on the island of Sodor (insert joke here), and have adventures about hauling freight, people, and farm animals (another joke here).

Humans and other anthropomorphized vehicles also reside on Sodor, which, upon close inspection, is quite like the island known as Great Britain, from where Thomas originated.

You can pee out of his face

This British Invasion is as bad as the War of 1812, and not nearly as entertaining as the Beatles. It has taken over the hearts and minds of children across the United States, infiltrating their souls with annoying songs and consumer lust to make Imelda Marcos blush. Specifically, it has taken over the life of my young nephew, who has been thick in the Heart of Darkness known as Sodor Island for at least half of his 42 months on earth. He plays with the trains, he watches the show, he hides in his Thomas the Tank Engine tent—it's all Thomas, all the time.

You see, the books spawned a television show, first in England, and now in the U.S., along with Thomas train sets, which involve hundreds of miniature trains. Thousands of trains. Not to mention tracks, buildings, and other model-train-esque apparitions, both in wood and metal versions (Twice the Cost! Twice the Fun!). This ignores Thomas kiddie wear, bed sets, clocks, temporary tattoos, toenail clippers, and enema kits.

Google “Thomas the Tank Engine” and you are confronted with 1.36 million hits, many for buying Thomas the Tank Engines and Friends Craptastic Crap. (Personally, in the name of verisimilitude, I think they should have Thomas-brand anthracite coal, a three-fingered, one-eyed engineer action figure, and a soot-covered boiler doll that sings, “I’ve been working on the fucking railroad, all my fucking days.”)

“I transform into a wallet-sucking monster”

This didn’t happen in a vacuum. An Englishman by the name of Rev. W. Awdry started the book series in 1945. Since then, “a generation of children have grown to love the cheeky engine and friends on the Island of Sodor,” proclaims the Random House Web site. Apparently, the books just weren’t enough. Somebody named Britt Allcroft turned “Thomas the Tank Engine” into a television show in the 1980s, which, Random House says without a shred of irony, “can now be seen in over 120 countries and inspired a multimillion dollar ancillary entertainment empire.”

That’s it. It’s not about literature, it’s about maintaining the multimillion dollar ancillary entertainment empire! Rule Britannia!

This rant probably stems from the fact that I will soon be a father, and I am already making plans to keep this smoke-blowing monstrosity as far away from my child as possible. Of course, as parents will gladly point out, this is a futile endeavor. And if it isn’t Thomas, it’ll be Barney. Or Barbie. Or Carburetor Al, or something yet to be devised in a marketing guru’s evil dreams.

I’m sure the Thomas books are probably great reads. But they've turned children's literature into product, aimed at the segment of the population most likely to Screaming Fits for Ancillary Junk. There are plenty of Dr. Seuss dolls and, of course, some great cartoons, but had Theodor Geisel lived to see “The Cat in the Hat” or “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” into live-action movies and Burger King figurines, he would have just let Sam I Am stick a fork in his heart rather than into green eggs and ham.

Resistance is futile

Every childhood pleasure is super-sized and turned into a commodity. It would behoove me to just accept this state of affairs, as I am sure that our little one will get hooked on something, and I guess it’s better to be obsessed Thomas the Tank Engine than Bratz dolls, violent video games, or bad books (the worst).

Now I have to go and buy more Pre-Baby Crap and complain about it on my blog.

Ah, it’s good to be back.