I came across this documentary purely out of the blue whilst minding my own business online one merry day. I saw an image, I clicked the link, it took me to some site which then informed me all about said doc. I instantly knew I had to see this, mainly out of pure morbid curiosity if anything. I mean really, how interesting could a documentary about action figures really be?? (even though those figures are Star Wars figures).
So at the time I write this review I am currently 38 years of age, pushing 39. So basically I’m a middle aged man to all the young hipsters and hepcats out there with their newfangled technology and whatnot (the fuck is all this iCloud business?? whatever). Anyway, I am of the generation that lived through the original releases of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Return of the Jedi’ (although I only recall RotJ), and consequently I grew up during the main period of the original Kenner Star Wars toy line. So to someone of my age who is or was a fanboy (or girl) of George Lucas’ space opera, this documentary will probably be a glorious trip down memory lane, or not, kinda depends dunnit.
So what does this doc do other than show you nice shots of loads of vintage Star Wars toys and their packaging. Well firstly and most obviously we meet a group of people, mainly blokes, who are in their mid 30’s and have impressive collections of the now vintage toy line. Each person describes how they got into the franchise, how it changed their life forever and of course how the toys were the centre of their lives throughout their childhoods. Each person generally sits behind a glorious glass cabinet display of figures, ships, action sets, original complete packaging, posters, trinkets, tat etc…the full monty so to speak. These guys know their shit, they know all about the toys and they treat them like chunks of rock from Mars, probably even better than that.
From there we move into the real gritty stuff, the Kenner company and how they came to be the centre of the toy world. Basically before Star Wars there was no real licensing for merchandise based off movies, no one had ever really tapped into that cash cow because no one ever really thought it would/could do anything. Kenner (based on Kenner Street in Cincinnati, Ohio) was originally part of a soap company in 1947 and came up with a toy gun that fired bubbles. This simple idea sold over a million units and got Kenner on the right track for children’s toys. Fast forward a bit to 1975 and Kenner starts to have success with toys based off TV shows like ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’. Then in 1979 along came ‘Star Wars’ and everything changed. Gone was the nice clean polished look and feel of science fiction, sci-fi was now dirty, grimy, damaged, worn in, weathered etc…The doc introduces us to various people who worked for Kenner at the time and they explain how the Star Wars movie presented a whole new world to them, a new challenge, basically entering new territory both for their work and film in general.
The guys (who range from the designers to managers) talk about how they all saw the movie to see what they were up against. They discuss how the movie blew them away, whilst at the same time how it got them excited due to the sheer wealth of imagination on display. They then had to go away and translate this explosive new movie into a new toy range with little time and not enough resources. This leads into talks about the surprisingly successful ‘Early Bird’ set of figures which was basically an empty cardboard box with a gift certificate for the actual figures when they were released. They discuss which characters were originally used and why, they show early figure concepts, early designs for spacecraft and vehicles, ideas for retractable weapon sections on some figures etc…In other words a whole lot of chat about toy prototypes with the final results.
There is generally a lot of talk with old Kenner designers and how they turned the movies now legendary spacecraft into highly popular toys. The ships were pretty straight forward obviously but seeing original models and designs for the Ewok village playset was neat. We also see various sketches of unused designs, most of which were for vehicles that weren’t actually in the film. Some of these actually got made which I’m sure people will recall (they looked crap and were so obviously not from the real Star Wars universe), but we do see lots of designs for land vehicles, droids and whatnot that didn’t get the green light. Ironically many of them do actually look pretty good…as sketches anyway. One toy that got the green light that wasn’t in the movies was the troop transport, a shitty excuse for a toy which looked way better in the design stage. Oddly it was Joe Johnston and Lucasfilm that didn’t like the original design, they revised it and, in my opinion, made it look crap. One of the biggest unused designs was for a large toy of the now famous Rebel blockade runner, the Tantive IV. This was really disappointing to discover as the Tantive IV is such a badass ship, fantastic design and it probably would of been a sweet toy. Hard to judge of course but the early design sketches looked great. The figures were cool but the original Kenner Star Wars spacecraft were always a big deal, easily some of the best toys ever created (check the Imperial Shuttle toy, best and biggest toy ever!).
One segment featured a chat with the original photographer of the toys for the original packaging. Now I know this might sound completely naff but it was actually really cool. The original Kenner packaging is just as famous and collectable as the toys they contained. Why you ask? well because they were so bright and colourful, they had that classic 70’s/80’s vibe (naturally), and the images used were simple but highly effective in capturing your imagination (at the time). Obviously there is a large prescription of rose tinted specs going on here but believe it or not, those images on the packaging are virtually seen as collectable art now. Hell even to this day that Kenner packaging design still evokes strong emotions and memories for me. The design truly was that powerful and influential, both now and back in the day. The packaging and some of the toys even had a certain smell about them. Whether or not smelling those toys was a good idea health wise I dunno, but the aroma was strong with some of those toys (especially the black TIE fighter pilot figure for some reason).
Towards the end the doc looks into various Star Wars toys from other countries. Most of these being genuine items that just had different packaging and languages obviously, such as the European figure packaging with French, English and Spanish on them (always hated how that looked). Twas interesting to see various changes and alterations to some toys in different countries such as Mexico for example. But then there was also the unlicensed stuff that either went under the radar or got shut down. Its incredible to see just how much garbage has been flogged with the Star Wars brand on it. From there the doc starts to explore the newer range of Star Wars merchandise, mainly figures and spacecraft. This is where it becomes uninteresting as the newer toys look shit compared to the classic stuff, so tacky and overblown, just makes you feel sorry for kids these days really.
Overall it was a shame that they didn’t delve deeper into specific character figures (for the classic range). I was kinda hoping there might be some cool insights into some of the alien characters and why they didn’t make figures for many background characters. Probably because they were background characters I guess but I always thought some of the choices for figures were odd. Like how some background characters were used and other more prominent background characters weren’t. For example, why did they make a figures for Yak-Face, Amanaman, Prune Face and Snaggletooth when these guys are hardly seen in the movies. Why were there no figures for the Devaronian, Biggs, Wedge, the Bith cantina band, Mon Mothma and various others from Jabba’s palace?
As I said originally, this is essentially for people of a certain age who remember this stuff, who actually grew up playing with it. I certainly recommend it to any Star Wars fan of course as it is an interesting little documentary. But lets not beat around the bush here, this is simply toy porn, in your face toy porn for guys who never really grew up. That’s not a bad thing! I myself still have various Kenner Star War toys from back in the day, including a couple ships, I include myself in this. But I still can’t lie, just seeing all those shots of rows upon rows of classic Kenner Star Wars figures, rows of all the ships and vehicles, every single piece. All the ones you wanted back in the day but never got, just sitting there in massive wall to wall displays. Yeah…total toy porn, but oh so good.