The Little Engine That Could is a famous children's story, used to teach children the value of optimism and perseverance. The story is said to be a metaphor for the American dream.
An early published version of the story, "Story of the Engine that Thought It Could", appeared in the New York Tribune, April 8, 1906, as part of a sermon by the Rev. Charles S. Wing.
A version of the story appeared in the six-volume Bookhouse Books, which were copyrighted in the United Kingdom in 1920 and sold in the United States by door-to-door sellers. Although this version contained no author attribution, it was edited by Olive B. Miller and published in Chicago. The Bookhouse version began, "Once there was a Train-of-Cars, and she was flying merrily across the country with a load of Christmas toys for the children who lived way over on the other side of the mountain."
In the 1941 Disney movie Dumbo, Casey Jr., the work train taking the circus animals to their destination, pulls his cargo up a hill repeating the well known saying, "I-Think-I-Can-I-Think-I-Can," and rolls down the hill saying, "I-Thought-I-Could-I-Thought-I-Could."
The best-known incarnation of the story The Little Engine That Could was written by "Watty Piper", a pen name of Arnold Munk, who was the owner of the publishing firm Platt & Munk. Arnold Munk was born in Hungary; as a child, he moved with his family to the United States, settling in Chicago. Later he moved to New York. Platt & Munk offices were at 200 Fifth Avenue till 1957, when Arnold Munk died. Munk used the name Watty Piper both as an author of children's books and as the editor of many of the books that Platt & Munk published. He personally hired Lois Lenski to illustrate the book. This retelling of the tale The Pony Engine appeared in 1930. The first edition attributes Mabel C. Bragg as the originating author. However, Mabel C. Bragg, a school teacher in Boston, never claimed to have originated the story.
In 1954, Platt & Munk published another version of The Little Engine That Could, with slightly revised language and new, more colorful illustrations by George and Doris Hauman. A 1976 rework featured art by Ruth Sanderson.
The book received two movie adaptations: a half-hour film released in 1991 by Welsh studio Kalato Animation and distributed by MCA/Universal Home Video, and a computer-animated one released in 2011, twenty years later, by Universal Studios. Both were direct-to-video releases.
- Anthropomorphic Food: The apples and oranges that the train is taking to all the little boys and girls.
- Arc Words: "I think I can, I think I can."
- Cool Train
- Determinator: She thinks she can.
- Foregone Conclusion: She can.
- Living Toys
- Non-Ironic Clown: A toy clown assumes leadership of the toys after the engine stalls out and asks other passing engines for help.
- The Noun Who Verbed: The title.
- Race Against the Clock: The train has to get over the hill by sunrise.
- Recycledin Space: The story is basically the parable of The Good Samaritan with anthropomorphic train engines.
- Survival Mantra: I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...
- True Blue Femininity: The titular little engine is often stated to be female, especially in the two film adaptations.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Nothing is ever stated about what became of the broken-down train in the book. However, the 1991 film shows that a doctor engine was notified of what'd happened, and took the broken down engine back to the train yard.
- Adaptational Badass: The mountain itself. While the original book depicted the mountain as nothing more than a small hill. This film and other version of the story make it look more like an actual mountain.
- Adaptational Species Change: Because the film is apparently based on Ruth Sanderson's 1976 illustrations, the shiny new engine (named Farnsworth) is a diesel engine instead of a steam locomotive like in the original.
- American Accents: Several characters. Georgia has a Dixie accent, fitting well with her name. Pete has a thick Brooklyn accent, and the Tower has one, too, but it's much less noticeable. Farnsworth has a 1940s Transatlantic accent. Jebediah has a Southern accent (though his is different from the one Georgia has).
- Award-Bait Song: Nothing Can Stop Us Now
- Big "NO!": The Tower deals a violent barrage of these to Tillie when she volunteers to take the train herself after the other trains have refused or are unable to do the job.
- Big Sister Bully: Jill picks on her brother Eric over his belief that there will be a birthday train coming for his birthday. She is proved wrong at the end of the film.
- Birthday Episode: More like a birthday movie; a majority of the events in the movie take place during the boy Eric's birthday.
- Canon Foreigner: Chip the bird, the boy Eric and his sister Jill, the Tower and the Doctor engine along with the inhabitants of the mountain.
- Cool Old Guy: Jebediah, who would've been more than happy to pull the birthday train if not for his advanced age. Also, like Doc and Georgia, he does not look down on Tillie's size.
- Darker and Edgier: In a loose sense, but the soundtrack in this movie can get pretty intense at times, particularly during the journey around the mountain where the dangers Tillie and her crew face are very, very real.
- Digital Destruction: The original release in America was slowed down.
- Disney Death: Tillie is buried beneath snow in the climax.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Let's see: Tillie is constantly shunned by the larger engines, and is essentially treated like a pile of scrap by the Tower. It doesn't get any easier when she finally hooks up with the birthday train, and must brave the deadly mountaintop despite everyone saying she didn't stand a chance up there. To put it shortly, Tillie is put through five levels of Hell just to prove her worth as an engine.
- Everything's Better with Monkeys: There's one here, named Jeepers. He is Rollo the clown's assistant.
- Four-Fingered Hands
- Jerkass: The Tower, natch.
- Also Farnsworth and Pete, but to lesser extents and they even have some likeable moments.
- Just Train Wrong: Tillie is constantly refused the opportunity to take a train over the mountain on the grounds that she's "too little". In reality, smaller locomotives would be better suited to going up mountains because their smaller size and narrower frames would allow them to more easily navigate the tight turns and narrow pathways that mountains have.
- Karma Houdini: In spite of the fact that the Tower was an overall Mean Boss to all the engines (especially Tillie), he is last seen asleep on the job.
- Mean Boss: While he runs the train yard with a good amount of efficiency, Tower's constant verbal abuse to Tillie firmly cements him as this.
- Meaningful Name: Grumpella the Bonneted Bird is a total grump. Georgia, one of the engines, has a Dixie accent.
- Mood Whiplash: While pulling the train toward the mountain, Tillie and the others sing a cute song about you can do anything if you try. But when they start climbing up the mountain things get pretty creepy.
- Named by the Adaptation: The old engine is called Jebediah, the broken-down engine is Georgia, the shiny new engine (here a diesel) is Farnsworth, the strong engine is Pete, and the titular Little Engine That Could is Tillie.
- No Name Given: Eric's sister is not identified by name through the movie, but the credits reveal her name to be Jill.
- Non-Human Sidekick: Chip the bird.
- Oh, Crap!: Tillie and the rest of the birthday train when a boulder destroys the bridge right out from under them and they almost go plummeting backwards over the cliff.
- Skewed Priorities: The Tower doesn't seem concerned enough about the broken down birthday train to send his only available engine to do the job, all because he refuses to believe an engine as small as Tillie could handle such a task.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Farnsworth and Pete, who are much too proud of their respective occupations as passenger and freight trains to even consider pulling the birthday train.
- Stealth Pun: "For Pete's sake, Pete, watch that smoke!"
- And then in the song, we have the line "When pandemonium is all around" as the camera focuses on a panda.
- Storybook Opening
- Team Mom: Georgia, who does not look down on Tillie for her size. That said, it's pretty sad to see her sidelined when she suffers a breakdown halfway through her journey.
- Adaptation Expansion
- Big Bad: The Nightmare Train.
- Gender Flip: The Tower, which was a male in the first movie, is a female here.
- The same goes for the clown.
- Kids Are Cruel: Two boys pick on Richard. They even steal his grandfather's watch from him.
- No Name Given: Some of the engines that show up in this one don't get proper names, unlike the first film adaption.
- Pie in the Face: This is a favorite of Beverly the Clown's.