It’ll make you feel like a kid again.
By Jason Hink
From online streamer Netflix comes a highly anticipated title—The Toys That Made Us, a documentary series that revisits and explains the history of a handful of popular toy brands that are sure to delight Gen Xers (and some Boomers), along with younger folks who no doubt grew up with many of the same toys thanks to their parents’ nostalgia and the never-ending corporate rehashing of fondly remembered, decades-old brands.
I’m not a Netflix subscriber, but this is one of the few series they’ve released over the years that made me want to jump on board. Thankfully, the first two seasons have been released on DVD and Blu-ray editions, which is how I saw it.
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Premiering on December 22, 2017, The Toys That Made Us wasted no time nailing down four of the most popular toy brands of the 20th century (just in time for Christmas, mom and dad!), dropping all four episodes that day on Netflix with 43- to 51-minute dives into Star Wars, Barbie, He-Man and G.I. Joe, and showcasing the men and women behind those marvels of marketing.
The brainchild of creator/producer Brian Volk-Weiss and his Nacelle Company, The Toys That Made Us lets each episode dictate its own tone based on how the interviews of those involved are shaking out, lending a unique feel to each episode. My main concern having watched this first, short season of shows is wondering just how long the series can continue, having already knocked out many of the heaviest hitters of the 1980s. But with just four episodes offered up each season, that helps spread the love around somewhat.
And speaking of heavy hitters, how about this lineup of toys? As a child of the ’80s, I knew many brands…but only seriously collected three…and it’s telling that two of those three are represented here in this first season. But let’s start with the first two episodes, as they’re listed in various online episode guides (they all “dropped” on the same day, so it doesn’t really matter…but we’ll stick to the official production order), which were not the two toy brands I played with as a kid.
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It makes sense to kick off the series with Star Wars. Did you play with Star Wars toys as a kid (if you were a child at the time)? I was just a year old when Star Wars hit theaters, so I obviously didn’t see it then (or at least remember it). But into the ’80s, after The Empire Strikes Back came and went, I found myself a 7-year-old boy who just wasn’t caught up in the magic of the brand. Friends at school had Star Wars toys, and I remember checking them out on occasion—especially a neighbor who had such a large collection that I thought he must’ve had every toy in the line, and the accessories to boot.
But why? As an adult I’ve tried to figure out why I didn’t seek out the brand. At first I thought it was because I didn’t like science fiction or fantasy…but that’s bunk—my favorite shows from that time were He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Knight Rider, and my He-Man toy collection was quite large. Plus, both of these brands were sci-fi and fantasy-based. Was it was the “space opera” setting I didn’t like? That seems far-fetched, too—I loved the 1979 James Bond film Moonraker at a wee age, and I was a fan of TV’s Battlestar Galactica, too. Suffice it to say, I think it comes down to the fact that my parents weren’t big on taking my sister and I to the movies when we were children, so our late 70s and early 80s fandoms were shaped by what we saw on TV (and for whatever reasons, I didn’t come across the Star Wars films in TV reruns. Just unlucky I guess).
Which makes it all the more fun to learn about the genesis of the Star Wars toys on The Toys That Made Us. The main takeaway is that once the Star Wars brand took off at the Kenner toy company, it began a huge boom of synergistic movie/TV-toy tie-ins throughout the 80s, 90s and beyond, with the most popular brands still flourishing today, racking up new fans from new generations. In the documentary, we learn that two huge toy companies (you know which ones they are) rejected the Star Wars license before little Kenner Products of Cincinnati took a chance on it. It was a gamble that paid off—a gamble that raised Kenner’s standing in the toy industry to that of its leading peers, Hasbro and Mattel.
In the second episode of The Toys That Made Us, another brand I didn’t collect as a child, but one we’re all familiar with: Barbie. My sister, who’s two years younger than me, collected the vaunted toy for girls during our 80s childhoods, which is saying something considering the line began way back in 1959. In past attempts at researching the toy company Mattel, all I could find were books about Barbie…and that’s because Mattel truly exploded as a toy company after the Barbie line took off.
In the documentary, we learn how Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler created the Barbie doll by using a German doll called the Bild Lilli (an adult, sex toy doll!) as inspiration, Americanizing it into what would become Barbie. The episode breaks down the other voices involved in Barbie‘s creation and covers many of the “scandals” the doll has experienced over the years (can we get a Scandal Barbie, complete with attorney sidekick accessory, as a new doll someday?), usually concerning complaints about the doll’s appearance, and how Barbie is just “too perfect” compared to real life.
Speaking of body-shaming, nobody can hold a candle to the physiques of the characters featured in The Toys That Made Us‘ third episode, He-Man. After failing to read the tea leaves in 1977 and missing out on the Star Wars license (and following flops with lines based on Clash of the Titans and Flash Gordon), Mattel looked to compete with the Kenner behemoth in the boys toy space and, after some interesting and competing versions outlined in the documentary, released the Masters of the Universe toy line in 1982—the first major line I collected as a child (and tricked my nephew into collecting a generation later).
The He-Man mythos sought to tap into the then-popular barbarian/sword-and-sandal craze, popularized by such films as 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. For me, the big-picture takeaway is how Masters of the Universe inverted the way a popular toy line was created at the time: Instead of creating a line of toys based on an already-existing movie, TV or comic book property, Mattel created the line in-house to stand on its own. When questions arose about how to market the toys (kids need a backstory for these characters, right?), the creators decided on the fly to commission a series of mini-comic books to be packaged with the action figures themselves—the first stories children were exposed to based on these characters.
The Masters of the Universe line sold modestly in 1982, but exploded in 1983 when Mattel commissioned the Filmation TV production company to produce a cartoon based on the toys. When the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) weren’t interested in carrying a show based on a toy line (a hassle the networks didn’t want following the 1960s battles with parent groups and the FCC that successfully quashed Mattel’s Hot Wheels cartoon in the early ’70s), Filmation gave the networks the middle finger and took He-Man to the syndication market where it exploded as a 5-days-a-week, afternoon cartoon for youngsters to watch after they got home from school.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is credited with beginning the trend of toy-based cartoons airing during the weekdays, usually sporting 65 episodes(!) for a single season (versus the usual 13 for the networks’ Saturday morning cartoons). Shows based on popular toys such as G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and The Transformers would later follow this same model. With this massive uptick in popularity came an explosion in He-Man toy sales, topping out in 1986 before completely falling off a cliff in 1987, a year which coincidentally saw the release of a live action Masters of the Universe movie produced by the notorious Cannon Films and starring Dolph Lundgren. Why did the line abruptly die at this point? You’ll have to watch the documentary to find out.
That brings us to the final episode of the the first season, where The Toys That Made Us explores the birth, rise, death and re-birth of G.I. Joe. Originally introduced in 1964, the G.I. Joe toy line is considered the first action figure (don’t call it a doll!) in history. But by the late ’60s and into the ’70s, fallout over the perception of war stemming from American involvement in Vietnam and an oil crisis took its toll on the line, leading to its demise in 1978.
Like Mattel, Hasbro sought to hold the line against Kenner’s Star Wars and, riding a new wave of cultural patriotism and pride in the Red, White and Blue, Hasbro brought back G.I. Joe in 1982 as a smaller 3 ¾-inch line (similar to the Star Wars figures), taking advantage of the Reagan-era atmosphere and creating a line that approximated the Cold War intrigue of the time and the renewed pride in the American military sweeping the country.
Rechristened G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, the line was a hot seller thanks to some savvy marketing by Hasbro, who commissioned Griffin-Bacal Advertising to produce high quality, animated commercials to air on television. But 1980s FCC rules prohibited animated commercials for toys (meaning a commercial had to show the actual toys in question during the ad). But Hasbro wanted action and excitement—essentially, they wanted the commercials to be 30-second Saturday morning cartoons. In an ingenious move, Hasbro and Griffin-Bacal licensed out the G.I. Joe property to Marvel Comics for a monthly series. There were no rules against creating animated commercials to sell the comic books, so that’s what they did; the action-packed, 30-second “cartoons” played out as promos for the comic books. The residual effect of this, of course, was more toy sales (kids who saw the TV ads naturally looked for toys based on those commercials and comic books).
Hasbro would eventually team with Griffin-Bacal, Marvel and Sunbow Productions to expand those animated commercials into full-fledged, syndicated cartoons with two 5-part miniseries (airing in 1983 and 1984, respectively), followed by a weekday series in 1985-1986. In total, 95 episodes were produced, launching the brand into the stratosphere (Hasbro and their partners would do the same in 1984 for their Transformers toy line, producing a daily Transformers TV series that aired back-to-back with G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero in many markets).
The G.I. Joe line would soldier on before ending its run in 1994, outlasting all of its early 80s “boy toy” contemporaries and carrying with it a legacy that’s resulted in revivals throughout the subsequent decades, complete with new cartoons, comic books, live action films and, of course, toys.
That’s the rundown for the first season of The Toys That Made Us. Is it worth watching? As someone who has read, researched and studied these brands for many years, I would say yes. The documentaries are nicely produced, fairly deep dives considering the time restrictions (they’re all under an hour in length). If you’re new or just a fan of the toys from when you were a kid, it’s a great overview and insider’s look at how these toys came to be. And if you’re someone who already knows a lot of the history and trivia related to these brands, it’s great to see so many of the actual people involved telling these stories firsthand.