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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 Comic Relief: The unnamed clown in the original story was not used for much else besides pleading with the engines to help out, but here, this clown (named Rollo) is The Klutz and The Ditz rolled into a Non-Ironic Clown.
  • Adaptational Explanation: The original story never elaborated on the fate of the engine that broke down. In this story, said engine (named Georgia) was taken back to the yard by a doctor engine named Doc.
  • 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.
  • Adaptational Sympathy: In a rare heroic example, this special does this for its titular locomotive (here, named Tillie) as part of its Adaptation Expansion. The original, unnamed engine pulled the birthday train because she was the only one willing to do it. Here, Tillie is constantly put down by the Tower in charge of the rail yard where she works, as well as the snooty diesel engine Farnsworth, for being "too little" to handle trains, so she's motivated to prove herself as an engine beyond being a simple switcher.
  • 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
  • Bait-and-Switch: When Tillie volunteers to take the birthday train, the Tower seems touched by her determination and starts nodding his head, acting proud of her stepping up like that. But then...
    Tower: "Never! Nix! No way! No time! Not now! Not ever! NO! NO! NO!"
  • 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.
  • Canada, Eh?: Doc has a slight Canadian accent to his voice.
  • 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.
  • Complaining About Rescues They Don't Like: Even when, after no less than four engines have been forced to turn down pulling the birthday train, Tillie shows up to help rescue them, Grumpella the Bird isn't happy about it one bit.
  • 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.
  • Cool Train: All the locomotives count as this. Notable standouts include Farnsworth as a fast-moving streamliner, Pete as a burly freight locomotive, and the titular little engine, Tillie, for hauling the train up the mountain in spite of the dangers.
  • Dramatic Irony: Jill thinks that Eric is being foolish into thinking a birthday train is coming to town for him, while he insists it is. Little does Jill know that it is coming; it just ends up running a bit late thanks to some engine troubles.
  • 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.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • The Tower, the biggest jerk in the film, actually looks concerned when Pete starts having a pretty bad coughing fit.
    • Grumpella, who spends nearly all the film complaining, looks horrified when she sees Rollo almost get rammed down by Farnsworth.
    • Farnsworth, an Upper-Class Twit though he may be, is terrified out of his gourd when he sees Rollo trying to flag him down, and makes a valiant effort to stop.
  • 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.
  • It's All About Me: Farnsworth and Pete's egos from working as a passenger liner and a freight locomotive respectively make them unwilling to take the birthday train.
  • 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.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: while she was being a pain-in-the-ass about it, Grumpella's complaints about Rollo's attempt at a Rousing Speech meant nothing if the toys couldn't get a locomotive to haul their train. It seems the universe was listening, since Tillie arrives right on cue.
  • Just Train Wrong:
  • The special features several steam locomotives that for some reason do not have tenders or tanks to store fuelnote . The birthday train does have a tender, but it's never used for anything other than a place for Rollo the Clown to sit back and enjoy the ride.
    • The titular little engine, here named Tillie, is forbidden from pulling trains up the mountain on the grounds that she is "too little". In reality, smaller locomotives would be preferable to bigger ones for going up mountains, because their smaller size and narrower frame would allow them to more easily navigate the narrow pathways and tight turns that mountains are known to have. If anything, of the engines, Farnsworth would be the one least suited to mountain railways because he's too big, especially considering he's primarily built as a passenger enginenote .
    • One scene involves Rollo the Clown flagging down the snooty Farnsworth and the stubborn Pete for help in getting the stalled birthday train rolling again. Both engines manage to stop in the span of 10-15 seconds, despite Farnsworth being a fast-moving diesel hauling a small train of passenger cars, and Pete being a burly freight engine with empty freight cars behind him. In reality, both would have taken some time to stop—at least up to a mile—and certainly not in a manner of which Rollo only gets planted on the locomotive's front end or is able to side-step out of the way.
      • The same scene has Pete running very closely behind Farnsworth, arriving only a few seconds after the snooty diesel leaves. While it's true that Farnsworth being abruptly flagged down did give Pete time to catch up, railroad safety operations prohibit trains from running that closely together, just in case the one in front has an emergency (like it did here). If anything, there should have been signals keeping the trains further apart, yet they're conspicuously absent in the entire film. This is particularly troubling, since having multiple trains run in single-track territory without signals is incredibly dangerous—it was under such similar circumstances that led to Casey Jones himself meeting his end.
    • When Georgia starts breaking down, she switches onto a side track before her stack explodes. Trains cannot physically change tracks by themselves without someone to throw the switch in front of them (and given the reaction of her passengers, it's doubtful any of them were able to get down and throw the switch). That being said, Pete and Farnsworth were due to arrive in a few minutes, so it's possible the switch would have already been set for Georgia to take siding and wait for them to pass, but that still raises the question of who opened said switch (since neither aforementioned engine seems to have any crews onboard). Worse yet, the fact the switch was open is even more dangerous, since it being set for the siding meant that Farnsworth or Pete could have derailed had they arrived earlier.
    • No railroad in their right mind would construct a route over such a dangerous mountain with a poorly-crafted bridge and an extremely steep grade after it, especially if they're transporting passengers or high-priority cargo over it. Yet Tillie almost loses her life multiple times during the trip. It's a miracle that a rickety-old bridge held up a heavy engine like Pete or was able to take a speeding passenger-liner pulled by Farnsworth.
    • The Tower refuses to send Tillie out to relieve Georgia on the birthday train, highly fraught in his belief that she's "too little" for the job, nor does he force Farnsworth or Pete (both of whom have already refused to pull the train at this point) to take over. In reality, no railroad would let anyone get away with their employees refusing to send out a relief engine to take over a stalled train, as any train sitting out there and not moving towards its destination is not only costing time, but also money. If any train stalls, they need immediate relief as soon as possible; if the Tower had a supervisor, he would have been fired on the spot for a stunt like that.
      • The Tower is later seen sleeping on the job; another big no-no in railroad operations. Falling asleep, especially in such a safety-sensitive position like that, is bound to lead to disaster, which is why railroads take painstaking efforts to reduce fatigue among its staff.
    • Doc wraps Georgia's busted smokestack in bandages to help her recover. Obviously no railroader would use such a crude method of repair.
    • When Tillie starts her morning routine to switch the other engines out of the roundhouse, there's a small gap in between the rails in each stall and the turntable. Such gaps are dangerous, as any train running over them could risk derailing if they hit them funny or ran over them too fast. As such, special devices are used to close said gaps—none of which appear on this turntable.
      • The same scene shows Tillie coupling to Farnsworth and Pete using a simple hook for a link-and-chain system instead of couplers. While it could be forgiven in the sense that this is a cartoon, and sentient engines obviously don't need human crews, such a system was retired for how easy they could come apart, and automatic couplers proved to be far more of an efficient means of holding trains together.
  • 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.
    • Likewise, neither Pete nor Farnsworth are given any comeuppance for refusing to pull 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.
  • Living Toys: Rollo has the birthday loaded with a small group of toys, including Grumpella the bonnet bird, Stretch the basketball player, Missy the Russian ballerina, Perky the elephant, Handy-Pandy the panda bear, and a slew of others.
  • 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:
    • The birthday train is making headway out of the yard with a faster, peppier version of the score used to load the train playing in the background. Then, things take a drastic turn when something breaks inside Georgia's boiler. She's able to switch onto a nearby siding before an explosion is heard, and she limps to a stop.
    • 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.
  • Muscles Are Meaningful: Pete, the largest of the group, is also the strongest, and has ginormous cylinder pipes.
  • 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.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: Invoked. Since the toys need a new engine to haul the birthday train, they deliberately wait for one to arrive so they can flag it down and ask them for help, even if it means standing in the middle of the rails waiting. Rollo almost gets hit twice doing this.
  • Rousing Speech: When the toys run out of engines to flag down and decide to hike it back home, Rollo rallies them together by pointing out that quitters never win.
  • 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:
    • Pete is shown coughing rather heavily in most of his scenes, while spewing out a lot of thick, black smoke. This basically makes him a "heavy smoker".
    • "For Pete's sake, Pete, watch that smoke!"
    • When Tillie thinks Georgia is against her taking the milk train for Jebediah, she noticeably puffs out a lot of steam. In other words, she's "steamed".
    • 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.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • 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.
    • The toys ask Doc if he can take the birthday train over the mountain, but he declines, citing he has to take Georgia back to the roundhouse to get her fixed. While it's true that the toys are in desperate need to get rolling again, Doc has a sick patient he has to take care of first, and suggests they flag down one of the other locomotives to help out.
    • 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 (Just Train Wrong of him being a passenger engine aside), 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.
  • 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 refuses to haul the birthday train.
  • 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.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Pete and Farnsworth disappear after they both refuse to take the birthday train, only being mentioned by Tillie when she's talking to Jedediah.
  • 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 adaptation.
  • Pie in the Face: This is a favorite of Beverly the Clown's.