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Literature / The Little Engine That Could

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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.

Relevant tropes:

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    The Book 

    The 1991 Half-Hour Film Adaptation
  • Actor Allusion: Perhaps unintentionally so, but Peter Cullen and Frank Welker are voicing a red and silver colored character respectively. Just like another show they worked on.
  • 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.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Both Farnsworth and Pete could have easily handled the birthday train, given the former's speed and the latter's strength, but refuse to do so, seeing the job as beneath them.
  • Buffy Speak: According to Doc, Georgia broke down due to a bent "spunglemunger," and can't climb the mountain in her condition.
  • 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. She gets better.
  • 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. But in the end, she makes it, whistling triumphantly at being able to pull it off by herself.
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: There's one here, named Jeepers, who's Rollo the clown's assistant.
  • Failed a Spot Check: After Farnsworth and Pete refuse to pull the birthday train, Rollo and Grumpella get into an argument about the possibility of another engine showing up, with the clown thinking there will be, and the bird believing there won't. As they're fighting, Jebediah pulls up with the empty milk train, asking them if he could pass. Rollo obliges, not realizing there's a steam locomotive right in front of him. Then, they keep arguing as he passes by, only for him to stop again and cause Grumpella to tell him to pipe it down. Only then do they notice a train has arrived.
  • Fantastic Racism: Farnsworth and the Tower don't think Tillie is capable of handling important jobs, as she's too little. Pete, Doc, Jebediah, and Georgia, however, don't think of her in this way at all.
  • Foreshadowing: Georgia mentions to Tillie that she's been having a bad ache in her chug-a-long that morning. This sets up her inevitable breakdown.
  • Four-Fingered Hands: The humans in the film have these.
  • Idiot Hero: Rollo. His heart is in the right place, but he's a bit of a ditz, and can barely hold things together until Tillie comes along.
  • Jerkass: The Tower, natch. Also qualifies as a Jerk with a Heart of Jerk for refusing to let Tillie to pull the birthday train when it seems like he's finally been won over to let her do the job.
    • Also Farnsworth and Pete, but to lesser extents and they even have some likeable moments.
    • Grumpella, who's constantly complaining, even when Tillie shows up to help the toys.
  • 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.note  Then again, that would have missed the point of the story.
    • None of the steam engines have tenders, or visible coal bunkers, meaning there's no clear indication of where they get their fuel source. The birthday train has a coal tender, but it's never seen being used for anything other than a place for Rollo to sit in.
    • Farnsworth and Pete both stop pretty quickly when Rollo flags them down (though the former takes a little longer). It takes trains going that speed at least a mile to stop, and considering both engines' weights, it may have taken a little longer. Pete is especially egregious, as he's built pretty heavy.
  • 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. In fact, the only sort of trouble he gets into is when Pete lets out a big billow of thick smoke, causing him to sneeze.
  • 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.
  • Nice, Mean, and In-Between: Barring Jebediah (who only interacts with her once, expressing his disappointment at being unable to help the toys), the other engines are this to Tillie based on their interactions towards her at the start of the film. Georgia is shown being nothing short of kind and supportive towards Tillie and acts like a caring older sister to her, Farnsworth is openly snooty and belittling towards Tillie by implying she's not a "real engine" simply because her job involves never leaving the train yard to make trips over the mountain, and Pete, while gruff, seems on much better terms with Tillie by not looking down at her for being a switch engine and good-humoredly tells her not to "bust a boiler" as she tows him out for him to start his duties for the day.
  • 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 for Tillie, and Jeepers the Monkey for Rollo.
  • Not a Morning Person: Farnsworth claims he's this.
    Farnsworth: "Refined engines such as I should never get up this early. It's bad for our chug."
  • 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. They are relieved that they survived...only to experience this again when they get a good look at a particularly nasty-looking cave.
  • Reality Ensues:
    • As mentioned under Shown Their Work, steam engines spew up a good chunk of black smoke when they aren't able to burn their fuel properly, and it certainly isn't that pleasant to inhale either. Pete bellows the stuff out so badly that the Tower sneezes when he gets a big whiff of it.
    • When Farnsworth and Pete refuse to substitute for Georgia on the birthday train, and with Doc having to take care of the sick engine, Tillie asks to take the train (since Jebediah, who hasn't appeared in the toy's path yet, is too old to do it). The Tower seemingly is willing to let her, only to violently tell her she's never going to. It's a darkly realistic reminder that when someone is dead-set in their ways, they won't change their minds instantly, especially if it means swallowing their pride and admitting they were wrong.
      • On that same note, Pete and Farnsworth's refusal to take the birthday train stems from them viewing such a job as beneath them. Like the Tower, they're stuck in their old ways, but those who've dealt with similar people can tell you that such folks in prominent positions have no desire to do grunt work.
    • Tillie and the birthday train reach a rickety old bridge and attempt to cross it, only for a loose boulder to knock out the central support pillar and causes it to collapse. The last car precariously dangles over as Tillie struggles to pull it up with all her might...only for the last car's coupler to break and cause it to careen into the ravine below, with Perky the Elephant narrowly avoiding going with it thanks to Tandy-Pandy. Only then is she able to get over safely, showing that, in spite of her determination, she's no match for the laws of physics.
      • Similarly, this is Tillie's first time out of the yard, and unlike the rest of the engines, has no experience climbing over the mountain. Farnsworth could easily speed through it, Pete's power lets him tough it out with ease, and Georgia would have been able to take it had she not broken down simply because she's familiar with the route. For a first-timer like Tillie, the mountain proves itself to be a very dangerous place, and she's narrowly able to get over it to begin with, almost dying twice in the process.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Sort of. Tillie decides to disobey the Tower and sneak out of the yard to pull the birthday train mostly because she wants to pull a train of her own, but considering she's the only one willing or able to do it (as Doc has to tend to Georgia, Jebediah is too old to do it, and neither Pete or Farnsworth have any intention of handling the train), her heart is nevertheless in the right place.
  • Shown Their Work: Pete, the burly freight engine, is shown to be coughing up a heavy amount of thick, black smoke, even causing both the Tower and Chip to sneeze in his wake, along with spitting out a piece of coal. Such smoke is typical of how locomotives are having trouble burning their fuel.
  • 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: The film opens with a copy of the book being read by Eric.
  • 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.
  • Tender Tears: Tillie sheds a few when the Tower won't let her pull any trains. Then, Missy sheds some when Pete tells her off and won't haul the birthday train.
  • The Last of These Is Not Like the Others: The opening shot shows the engines inside the roundhouse sleeping peacefully. It circles around to show the quiet Georgia, the snoring Jebediah, and the burly Pete in the midst of a coughing fit—all steam engines thus far. Then it cuts to show the echoing Farnsworth, a diesel engine.
  • Track Trouble: The birthday train is crossing a particularly high bridge in a storm when a boulder hits the middle support, causing it to give way. It takes the last car falling off for Tillie to be able to make it to the other side.
  • Tranquil Fury: Pete does not take kindly towards being asked towards pulling the birthday train.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: The Tower delivers a particularly cruel example of this. After Doc gets the broken-down Georgia back to the roundhouse, Tillie offers to pull the birthday train. This is just after Farnsworth and Pete have both refused to do the job, and the toys have yet to encounter Jebediah (who has to turn it down). The Tower actually seems touched by her determination and lets off a big smile...only to instead angrily refuse her and yell right in her face that he has no intention of letting her handle the job.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Farnsworth has this reaction when he's asked to pull the birthday train. Same with Pete, but to a lesser extent.

    The 2011 Film Adaptation
  • Adaptation Expansion: Like the 1991 half-hour special, this serves as one to the original novel, only it operates under the precipice of magic.
  • 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.


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