Little Engine That Could

VHS cover of The Little Engine That Could showing Tillie pulling the birthday train

The Little Engine that Could is a 1991 film directed by Dave Edwards and co-produced by Edwards and Mike Young, animated at Kalato Animation in Wales and co-financed by Universal Studios through their MCA/Universal Home Video arm and S4C, Wales' dedicated Welsh-language channel. It was released on VHS by MCA. It was directed by Dave Edwards, and features the voice talents of Kath Soucie and Frank Welker. It is based on the book of the same name, by Watty Piper.

In Wales the film was join-released in both English and Welsh, under the title Yr Injan Fach Fentrus (The Adventurous Little Engine) and was broadcast on television in both languages. As a native production it was widely available on VHS in Wales and thus achieved a degree of cult status during its time, though never touching on the level of other iconic characters such as Fireman Sam and Superted, both of which featured production staff members who worked on "The Little Engine That Could".


On her way to deliver a cargo of magical toys to eagerly waiting children, dedicated locomotive Georgia suddenly breaks down. Pete and Farnsworth, two big engines with important jobs, refuse to pull the train in her place. Plus rusty old Jebediah is too worn out. The little switch engine named Tillie is the only engine left, and she thinks she can do it.

Plot outline

The movie begins with a reveal of the cover to the classic book The Little Engine that Could. The book opens to a picture of a house at sunset, and then the film transitions inside the pages to the interior of the house. In his bedroom, Eric, a young boy, is reading the book. Tomorrow is his birthday, and having read the book he is excited at the prospect of receiving a visit from the story's birthday train full of toys. His older sister Jill teases him with "Birthday Train full of toys? I just can't believe you really believe in that." But Eric maintains faith that the train will come.

The opening credits roll as the camera flies down from the house to the railroad, and then follows the tracks over the mountains through the night into the morning. On the other side is the railyard at the end of the line where everything is anthropomorphic. The control tower wakes up and calls out, "To work!" and the five sleeping engines in the roundhouse are introduced. There's a fancy red engine with a bonnet named Georgia, a rusty yellow engine named Jebediah, a large, coughing maroon engine named Pete, an even larger diesel engine named Farnsworth with a lustrous silver coat, and finally, there's Tillie, a little blue switcher and her bird friend, Chip. Tillie wakes up, and begins shunting the other engines while they build up steam (and in the case of the instant-start Farnsworth, seemingly because he is simply lazy).

After Farnsworth and Pete have had their jobs assigned to them, Tillie (desperate to move beyond the confines of the yard) tries to sneak out with the milk-train in place of the rostered engine, the aged and sleeping Jebediah. The tower refuses, insisting she is too small for the job. Georgia, the only remaining engine, is assigned the birthday train, full of toys, presumably intended for Eric's birthday. Amid much fanfare, a clown named Rollo leads the other toys into the train, among them a Basketball Player named Stretch, a ballerina named Missy, a panda named Handy Pandy, an elephant named Perky, and a stuffed bird named 'Grumpella' (named after her attitude). As tears welled up in her eyes, Tillie watches sadly as Georgia leaves, realizing that if the tower is right, she'll never have an important train of her own, much to Donald's annoyance.

In the middle of the journey, Georgia starts to have boiler trouble. After swinging off the main track, her smoke stack explodes and she breaks down. Eventually, the green doctor engine 'Doc' comes having been alerted by smoke-signal, and decides to take her back to the roundhouse. Left behind, Rollo the clown eventually latches onto Doc's idea of flagging down one of the other engines returning from their daily runs over the mountain. However Farnsworth, the first engine to pass by, is very pompous, and refuses to pull them. He leaves, laughing at them through his air horn. Then Pete passes by. The tough freight engine is equally conceited, and also scoffs at the stranded toys.

Back in the yard, Tillie once again asks for a chance to go out and rescue the stranded train, to which the tower refuses by yelling at her furiously, exaggerating that she could never, ever do it. Donald overhears the tower and interrupts, shutting him up angrily and arguing with him whether Tillie will do the job or not. In the meantime, Jebediah, the old and rusty engine, passes the toys. He would love to pull them, but having already made a round-trip over the mountain during the day does not have the strength to do so again. He apologizes to the toys, feeling sympathy for them. He also apologizes to Tillie when he gets back to the yard, right under the nose of a sleeping tower. Although she apparently understands his apology, Tillie realizes there are absolutely no engines left until Chip reminds her that there was still herself left. Tillie takes advantage of the tower dozing off to sneak away to pull the train. Having met the toys she is seen chugging and charging up the mountain determinately chanting, "I think I can, I think I can", which leads into the film's signature song "Nothing Can Stop Us Now".

Further up the mountain the weather worsens, the terrain becomes fiercer and the trains speed falls off as the grades steepen. Several animals, including a wolf and a bald eagle pass Tillie, and try to put her down by saying she's too little and can't do it. To all their taunts, she responds with a furious, "I think I can!". Reaching an old trestle, the train crosses halfway before the river, swollen from the storm, sweeps a boulder into the piers, collapsing the trestle. One train car falls over the cliff, but fortunately, none of the living toys are lost. Making it up a final steep ascent, Tillie reaches the summit, but is confronted by a gigantic and scary-looking snowy cliff overhanging the rails; in attempting to pass, an avalanche, caused by Donald's screams bloody murder, buries the train in snow and knocks Tillie unconscious. In the middle of the night, Eric, the little boy, is woken up by the thunderstorm and seems to worry about Tillie and the birthday train.

Eric's book is once again used to transition back into the narrative. The train is buried under a mound of snow, and Tillie is shown to still be unconscious. Her firebox appears doused, but the coals suddenly glow as she breathes in air through her firebars. Regaining consciousness, Tillie finds Chip passed out on her headlight, and nudges him awake. They hug, and Tillie decides to give it one more try. Using her cowcatcher as a snowplough and with a feat of strength, she successfully pulls the train out of the snow and down the mountain. The toys cheerfully sing along the way, and they finally reach the town. Eric sees them, and shows his sister Jill that the train did come after all, although in narrative terms the train arrived a day late. The film ends with Tillie, who although very tired is proud and happy, blowing her whistle in joy after she proclaims to Chip, that "Yes I did it! And it was worth it!" The whistle signals all the children in the town, including Eric, to come out towards the train.

Anthropomorphizing Inanimate Objects

The anthropomorphic locomotives speak through faces on their smokeboxes (in the cases of Pete, Doc and Georgia) or smokestacks (Tillie and Jebediah). The whole of Farnsworth's streamlined frontage forms his face, with his eyes appearing in place of cab windows.

In addition, the engines can twist and flex their metal bodies to express emotion (i.e. Tillie and Jebediah spin their smokestacks round 180 degrees to look behind them) and the steam engines use their steam cylinders like limbs, giving them the ability to shrug, point and make other gestures. Doc demonstrates this perfectly when he somehow picks up an oversized stethoscope with his cylinder to diagnose Georgia, despite not having any fingers to hold it with.

Other means of expression include Farnsworth's air-horn, which forms his nose and which he often snorts or speaks through, and Pete's habits of coughing extreme quantities of sickly smoke and spitting hot cinders into water buckets.

The Control Tower appears as a square wooden box on metal leg-like struts with windows for eyes, a roof for a hat, semaphore signals for arms and a corncob-pipe-like klaxon for a nose, which like Farnsworth he can sound to great effect. Like the locomotives he can flex his metal and wood body and grasp objects (such as a giant clipboard and pencil) with his signal-arm limbs.


  • Tillie: The small blue 4-2-2 shunter/switcher tank engine and the main protagonist, who wishes to do greater things like pulling the birthday train all by herself. She is very kind and always begging Tower to pull a train of her own. Her famously positive attitude helps her reach her dreams. Tillie's design, with her diamond-smokestack, open-backed cab and prominent single driving wheel are inspired by illustrations from editions of the original book illustrated by George and Doris Hauman, which in turn were inspired by the real locomotive C. P. Huntington. She is voiced by Kath Soucie.
  • Chip the Bird: A tiny bird that is Tillie's best friend, most often seen riding on her headlamp. He is always on Tillie's side and never lets her sadness get the best of her. He is voiced by Scott Menville.
  • Casey Junior: The circus train. Casey Junior has a 2-4-0 wheel arrangement, a small four-wheeled tender at the back, a big tall funnel, a little lamp hat, a short stumpy boiler, a short stumpy dome with a whistle on the top and a small cowcatcher at his front. He is voiced by Cathy Cavadini.
  • Control Tower: The strict controller of the railroad who is very set in his beliefs and under-estimates Tillie. He is voiced by Neil Ross.
  • Georgia: An attractive 2-4-2 engine, who acts like a benevolent older sister to Tillie. Rostered to pull the birthday train, Georgia broke down on her way, and had to be returned to the roundhouse to recover. She is one of the nicer engines and supports Tillie in her attempts to break free of the confines of the yard. Like all the engines Georgia is of freelance design and features decorative embellishments to convey her femininity and personality. She is voiced by Bever-Leigh Banfield.
  • Farnsworth: A shining silver diesel-electric engine that pulls the luxurious express. He is very pompous in his ability to pull fine people smoothly and believes he is too good to pull anything besides his important coaches, therefore refusing to pull the birthday train. He was the first one flagged down by Rollo the clown. His appearance seems to be inspired by classic American streamlined locomotives, such as the EMD F7 diesels and the Milwaukee Road class A steam engines. He is voiced by Frank Welker.
  • Pete: A maroon 2-4-2 freight engine with a tough guy attitude, a Brooklyn accent, and a "smoke problem" (shown especially at the beginning, where he coughs smoke in his sleep and then later causes the Control Tower to sneeze). He seems good-natured towards the other engines (only gently teasing Tillie rather than outright insulting her), but is highly proud of his freight train - he believes his important work feeding the fires of progress, commerce and industry sets him above menial tasks, thus causing him to refuse to pull the birthday train when asked (he was the 2nd flagged down after Farnsworth). Pete's mass, power and distinctive rivets make him reminiscent of the heavy freight locomotives that were once ubiquitous to America's railroads. He is voiced by Peter Cullen.
  • Jebediah: A friendly old 4-2-2 engine who has been worn down by the years and has now effectively been 'put out to pasture' on the milk-train, and who no longer has the puff to make multiple runs over the mountain, despite his voiced desire to help. He was the third and final train flagged down before Tillie. Jebediah resembles Tillie in shape, but is larger and patched up in many places from years of use. Plus, he is a golden yellow. He is voiced by Frank Welker.
  • Rollo the Clown: An absent-minded clown who seems to lead the toys. He stutters often, but is very optimistic and caring. He is voiced by Frank Welker.
  • Grumpella: A cynical bird who always expects the worse. She had been the one to tell Farnsworth (when flagged down) about their problem when Rollo failed to. She is voiced by B.J. Ward.
  • Perky the Baby Elephant: One of the minor characters and a little baby elephant. He is voiced by Frank Welker.
  • Handy Pandy: One of the minor characters and a handy panda. He is voiced by Neil Ross.
  • Stretch: A stretchy basketball doll. He may have a crush on Missy, but this was never looked further on. He is voiced by Scott Menville.
  • Missy: A ballerina doll with a Russian accent. When Pete was flagged down, she was the one to explain their problem. She is voiced by Kath Soucie.
  • Doc: A 4-4-4 engine in green livery with first-aid crosses and 'hazard' chevrons who comes to the aid of stricken trains. He came to Georgia's aid when she broke down, and then patched her up and returned her to the roundhouse to recover. He is voiced by Neil Ross.
  • Eric: A young boy who looks forward to the birthday train's arrival, despite what his sister says. He is voiced by Billy O'Sullivan.
  • Jill: The older sister of Eric who no longer believes in things like birthday trains, until the end of the film. She is voiced by Dina Sherman. Unlike the original version of the film, her name is now revealed when Goofy mentioned she will see birthday train that she never forget.

Voice cast

Mickey and friends

Characters of the film

  • Kath Soucie - Tillie/Missy
  • Frank Welker - Perky the Elephant/Eagle/The Big Wolf/Jeepers/Farnsworth/Jebediah/Rollo
  • B.J. Ward - Grumpella
  • Neil Ross - Doc/Tower/Panda
  • Bever-Leigh Banfield - Georgia
  • Peter Cullen - Pete/The Cave
  • Scott Menville - Chip the Bird/Stretch
  • Billy O'Sullivan- Eric/The Little Wolf
  • Dina Sherman - Jill

Japanese Cast

  • Mayuko Aoki - Tillie/Jeepers
  • Minoru Inaba - Doc/Eagle/Pete
  • Machiko Soga - Chip the Bird/The Little Wolf
  • Mika Doi - Missy/Jill
  • Ikue Ōtani - Grumpella
  • Nobuyuki Hiyama - Farnsworth/Jebediah/Stretch/The Big Wolf
  • Yumiko Shibata - Georgia
  • Kōichi Yamadera - Rollo/Tower/The Cave
  • Nanaho Katsuragi - Eric

Latin American Spanish Cast

  • Georgina Sánchez - Tillie
  • Claudia Mota - Chip the Bird

United Kingdom Cast

Australia Cast

  • George Carlin - Narrator

Differences between book and film

  • The narrative in the book is very linear, being told solely from the perspective of the toys.
  • In the book, the child who wants to see the birthday train is not featured.
  • There is not an anthropomorphic control tower in the book, or a character resembling Doc.
  • The movie featured a more detailed adventure to the other side of the mountain including the deterring animals, collapsing trestle, intimidating snowstorm and avalanche, unlike the book which simply featured the protagonist chanting her famous line, "I think I can" over the pass.
  • Tillie's narrative story embellishes Piper's original narrative with elements of the earliest Thomas the Tank Engine stories; Tillie like Thomas is cast as a shunting engine seeking to expand her horizons beyond the world of the yard she is assigned to.
  • The strong engine in the book usually has a 4-8-0 wheel arrangement. Pete is a 2-4-2.
  • The shiny new engine in the book usually has a 4-6-0 wheel arrangement. Farnsworth is a diesel.
  • The rusty engine in the book usually has a 4-4-2 wheel arrangement and has a face on the smokebox. Jebediah is a 4-2-2 and has a face on the smokestack.
  • The engine on the toy-train in the book usually has a 4-4-2 wheel arrangement. Georgia is a 2-4-2.
  • The little blue engine in the book usually has a 4-2-4 wheel arrangement. Tillie is a 4-2-2.
  • The clown in the movie, named Rollo, is very different from the clown in the book.
  • In the book, the blue engine had no idea about the birthday train until she encountered the stranded toys and had some doubt about her ability to pull them as she was just a switch engine. In the movie, Tillie knew about the toy train all along since the Tower told Georgia about it. Tillie had a significant desire to pull the train as shown when she watched Georgia pull the train from the station, tearfully saying, "I can do that."

Animated adaptation

Main article: Tom and Jerry & The Little Engine That Could

In 2018, an animated adaptation of the film with Tom and Jerry was released. Tom and Jerry & The Little Engine That Could had the original voice actors reprise their roles.