May 14, 2019
Street Date 5/7/19;
This eight-part documentary series that originally premiered on Netflix delves into the history of some of the most influential toy brands from the past 50 years.
With a particular focus on toys that were big in the 1980s, when the loosening of the rules governing television programming blurred the line between content and advertising, it’s no surprise that many of the toy lines profiled here also rank among the most significant pop culture franchises as well.
Fittingly, then, the first episode deals with “Star Wars,” and how the George Lucas space opera forever changed the landscape of movie merchandising, while elevating a small toymaker such as Kenner into a national powerhouse. Not that other major players such as Hasbro and Mattel aren’t represented.
The hour-long episodes are divided into two seasons — one season per disc — and smartly focus on a different toy brand each episode. That allows each episode to find its own voice in telling the story of that particular toy, while letting viewers pick and choose which episodes they want to watch based on which of the toys are of interest to them.
Other season one episodes focus on “Barbie,” “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” and “G.I. Joe.” Season two deals with “Star Trek,” “The Transformers,” “Lego” and “Hello Kitty.”
Aside from some invaluable under-the-radar lessons about business and marketing, the episodes offer a pure blast of childhood nostalgia, particularly for Gen Xers who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s.
Which isn’t to say that younger viewers can’t find something to enjoy in the show, as most of these toy lines are pretty timeless. Plus, the upcoming third season will look at newer toys such as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Power Rangers” (in addition to “My Little Pony” and professional wrestling toys).
The shows offer a lot of fascinating details about how the toys were created and evolved. The “He-Man” show is entertaining simply for how so many of the line’s creators want to take credit for coming up with it. The story of the creation of Battle Cat is particularly hilarious.
The first disc offers an eight-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with series creator Brian Volk-Weiss, who delves into what his goals for the show were and why certain toys were chosen to be profiled.
It seems like a bit of an odd choice to include “Star Trek,” which has never really been associated with a robust toy line. But as the narrator continually brings up how less successful “Trek” toys have been compared with “Star Wars,” the episode comes across more as an avenue to profile the various toy companies like Mego, Galoob and Playmates that tried their hands at “Star Trek” toy lines over the years, with varying degrees of success.
In fact, the lone deleted scene included with the DVDs is from the “Star Trek” episode, consisting of a two-minute clip of various talking heads wondering why the toys based on the J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” reboot didn’t sell well.
That discussion hints at the challenges that not just toymakers, but any steward of a popular brand face in the rapidly changing information age. Some brands have always had better success than others in crossing from one generation to the next, but the means of instant gratification brought on by the Internet have altered the tactile relationship viewers have with their favorite content, both in the collectability and playability of the merchandise associated with it.
As one of the talking heads notes in the deleted scene, we don’t really have pop culture anymore. We have a customizable culture, in which consumers can focus on their fandoms like never before.
Whatever the case, at least we have shows like “The Toys That Made Us” to help remind us why we love these things to begin with.