Wednesday, June 1, 2016
MEMORIES: Action Figures
Everyone plays with toys as a kid. Once upon a time, this might have meant wheels and sticks, eggs and spoons. In the 21st century, it means action figures, dolls, and plush toys licensed from movies, cartoons, comic books, and video games. With the exception of old stalwarts like Transformers and LEGO, original toy lines seem harder to launch in today's risk-averse world. Not that I’m complaining. As a kid, I loved toy lines based off movies and TV shows. Of course, I could wax nostalgically about Beast Wars or Ninja Turtles. But toy lines connected with cinema seemed special to me. There’s little doubt in my mind that my passion for one fueled my passion for the other. Long before I started collecting action figures for their aesthetic value, I collected toys so I could imagine adventures beyond the films, beyond the pre-existing story lines.
I’ve already written a long winded essay about the horror-themed collectable that would come along when I was a little older. If you wanted to collect monsters or madman earlier in the nineties, quality products were harder to find. Which isn’t to say some people didn’t try. The late eighties and early nineties were a weird time to be a kid. While moral guardians still exerted considerable power – the music obscenity controversies had already come and gone by this point – sometimes odd topics were deemed appropriate for small kids. In 1992, toy company Kenner produced a line of action figures based off “Aliens.” You know, that R-rated sci-fi/horror/action film about penis-headed demons from outer space that rape your face. Kenner took a number of liberties with the source material, of course. The toy line focused on absurd hybrids of the iconic xenomorphs and earthly animals. Thus, kids had snake, panther, mantis, gorilla and more variations on H. R. Giger’s phallic monstrosity to play with.
K.B. Toys’ clearance bin.
Predator.” You know, that movie about a vagina-faced monster from outer space that skins people. While the Predator series presented fewer opportunities for young fans to make a monster-filled zoo, Kenner’s “Predator” line still exaggerated on the cinematic designs. One notable Predator toy had giant tentacles growing from his face. However, the Predator’s specialized equipment lent itself well to toy action features. Naturally, you had Predators that changed colors and launched giant missiles. Kenner would follow the lead of the Dark Horse comic books and produce “Aliens vs. Predator” toys as well. It’s no surprise that both lines remain a source of horror fan nostalgia today.
Rambo” or “RoboCop.” The practice was still around in the nineties. I fondly recall a toy line based off “Terminator 2.” One figure of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s time displaced killing machine could fire a clenched fist, connected to the arm by a white string. Another had tear away human features, revealing the mechanical skeleton underneath. The practice of targeting kids’ toys based off adult skewing films would mostly die out by the end of the decade. The last example I can think of is Galoob’s “Starship Troopers” line. I can see the designs of the alien insects appealing to kids. I can’t see most adults approving of the film’s casual nudity or limb-tearing gore.
Then again, some movies were created with the intention of selling toys. After the surreal pseudo-sexual darkness of “Batman Returns” prompt parental complaints, the content of “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin” were considerably softened. The latter film is reportedly credited with the creation of the term “toyetic.” As in, “intentionally designing something that isn’t a toy so that it will make an awesome toy.” As a kid, you don’t notice narrative content being disregarded in favor of merchandising. Even kid-me recognized that the latter two “Batman” sequels were inferior to the first. I didn’t have any such complaints about the action figures. “Batman Forever” produced a massive Batcave play set that I greedily lusted after as a kid without ever receiving one. I also loved the Batmobile, which also transformed into the Batwing and Batboat. The individual figures didn’t interest me as much – though the talking Riddler was eye-catching – but the play sets definitely held my attention.
Of course, some movies didn’t require extensive re-working to make room for toy makers. Dinosaurs have an evergreen appeal with kids. “Jurassic Park” was more then ready to capitalize on that. Kenner probably could’ve slapped the “Jurassic Park” logo on pre-existing dinosaurs toys and laughed all the way to the bank. (They happily slapped the “JP” logo on everything else.) Instead, they produced several series worth of unique dino toys. An action feature that I especially loved as a child was the “dino damage.” The “Jurassic Park” toys had bits of flesh or plating that tore away, revealing bloody muscles underneath. Money wasn’t always easy to come back when I was kid. The large scale dinosaur toys of “Jurassic Park” were mostly out of my parents’ price range. Yet you can bet the one toy from the line I received, the rubbery stegosaurus with its gasping face, I treasured.
(Amusingly, the “Jurassic Park” toy line would outlive even that movie’s longer-than-average lifespan. Kenner would cook up all sorts of wacky gimmicks to keep the toy line going. One of my favorites was the “Chaos Effect” series, which mashed together different dinosaurs into single creatures, often with bright, outrageous color palettes. It shouldn’t come as a shock that a toy company thought up this idea before “Jurassic World” did.)
Trendmasters still pulled from the films for their Godzilla line. I loved these toys as a kid. Trendmaster exaggerated the already toy-friendly monster designs to be even more comic book-y. Godzilla gained a muscular physique. Rodan gained more spikes and more fearsome facial features. This toy line was my first exposure to characters like Battra, Space Godzilla, and Biolantte. I can recall one scenario where, after a rough day at school, my Mom took me to K-Mart and let me go home with a MechaGodzilla figure. I still have a lot of these figures but they were roughly played with. My King Ghidorah is missing two of his three heads. One of Rodan’s wings is barely attached. That didn’t stop me from imaging and acting out adventures with the toys, which I did often. Though undeniably childish, they are still pretty neat figures. The toy line lasted longer then I knew at the time, with obscure characters like Baragon and Varan even getting figures. Before going under, Trendmaster even produced a Gamera action figure line. I wouldn’t discover these existed for years afterwards.
In the nineties, toy line were often supported by Saturday morning cartoons and vice versa. The connection was so strong in my mind that I was often disappointed when cool toy lines didn’t have corresponding cartoon shows. Kenner’s “DragonHeart” toy line expanded on the feature film. While the film only had one dragon, the toy line had several. One had two heads and the other had a row of spikes extending from its back. Yes, I was disappointed when the film failed to feature these characters. I don’t know if a cartoon was planned to tie in with the film and the toys but I suspect it. Those “DragonHeart” figures were well done, considering the time, and the large-scale Drago figure remains in my collection to this day.
Some movies were more successful in spinning off cartoon shows and toy lines. I loved the nineties “Addams Family” movies as a kid, the morbid laughs and gothic production values no doubt appealing to the future horror fan in me. The movies spawned a wackier kid’s cartoon that aired around the same time. I vaguely recall the cartoon show. The corresponding toy line, however, I remember vividly. My Mom bought me nearly the entire toy line as an Easter gift one year. I can remember waking up that morning and seeing the toys, stuck into a small basket, sitting atop my toy box. The action features were less then imaginative. Lurch lazily lifted his arms. Vines extended out of Morticia's sleeves. Gomez’ sword slowly swatted back and forth. Despite that, I adored those toys and spent hours messing around with them. Morticia often became my default female figure, often rescued by other, always-male toys. Once, Lurch traveled with me to a friend’s house. There, his head was broken on a row of concrete steps. I really wanted a replacement but the toy line was long out of production by that point. I was so attached to the toy line that I was disappointed when the Wednesday and Thing figures promised on the back of the packaging was never released.
Getting attached to failed toy lines wasn’t uncommon for me. I also loved the “Extreme Ghostbusters” toys. By the time the “Extreme Ghostbusters” cartoon rolled around, the franchise was long past its peak popularity. The corresponding toy line cooled on store pegs for months after the show’s conclusion. That didn’t stop me from loving them. The toys were brightly colored, with big backpacks and multiple connecting tubes. Each Ghostbuster was packaged with a small, almost cute ghosts and a bright orange trap. Those trap accessories often crossed over with my other toys. I can even remember carrying them around in my pockets, pretending they were coins. Kids are funny that way. I also had a few of the ghosts, such as the pumpkin-headed Samhain. Disappointingly, the toy line didn’t cover all the major characters of the series. The failure of the toy line meant the proposed figure of wheelchair bound Garret never reached production. Luckily, goth female Kylie did get an action figure, proving there was once a time when “Ghostbusters” fans didn’t hate women.
A lot of these toys are still packed up in boxes at my mom’s place. Many of them are lost to time. My figure of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Hamlet from the “Last Action Hero” line – which, amusingly, shot a spring-loaded skull – disappeared at an overnight stay at Joe Scotti’s house. The figure of the dog from “The Mask,” which featured a crazed grin on its face and a large net apparatus on its back, vanished on a school bus. Yet you’ve always got your memories. My tendency to hold onto my childhood toys – and the memories I built around them – is no doubt evidence of my arrested development. I’m okay with that. Loving old toys puts me in good company these days. Should I ever have kids of my own, I look forward to them building their own memories around the colorful action figures and toys they receive.