Depending on when you’re reading this, the motion picture The Last Airbender could prove to be the worst reviewed film of 2010. I haven’t seen it (and at the rate the horrible reviews are piling up, may never put it in my Netflix queue. Yes, life IS too short), but I have heard that it’s based on a very well made animated series, with quite a following. The fact that it’s getting devastatingly bad reviews from not just the fanboys on every nerd site imaginable, but mainstream media outlets as well, makes me beg the question once again with a major film making endeavor: how in the hell did this happen? I mean, there seems to be a mythology and story arc already in place as a shortcut, and yet it would appear this flick still comes up monumentally short across the board; acting, script, effects, pacing, etc, etc, have all been torn to bits. And it made me think of similar situations in the toy world, when the details are laid out in advance of the project and things take a particularly nasty turn for the worse.
Of course, in the movie world these screw-ups are so commonplace they’ve taken on drinking games all their own. Most of the time I’m not too terribly hard on genre films, giving a fair amount of leeway when it comes to logic and groan worthy dialogue when I’ve already accepted the fact that two super beings are beating holy hell out of each other in the middle of downtown L.A. What I can’t accept, what makes me absolutely nuts on the drive home from the theater, are those details that are easily fixable if only one brave soul would have ticked the appropriate box and gotten to it. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Danny Houston in X Men Origins: Wolverine, who played the same character (only younger) that Brian Cox had played previously in X2, but without the southern accent. On that note, another head scratcher is the entire cast of Sam Raimi’s The Gift, in which all the characters seem to have grown up in the same one horse town and all know each other intimately, but no two of them have remotely the same accent. Or in the much lauded The Piano (which I already hated for several reasons), when the crucial climactic moment involves Holly Hunter’s character sending a note to Harvey Keitel’s character, who happens to be illiterate. Or worst of all, the continual employment of Giovanni Ribisi, who insists on playing every scene as if he’s a spastic with a migraine. In any of the above instances, if one or two mavericks at either the studio or on set had just taken that extra moment, found some conviction and said “Um, actually, I don’t think that’s such a terrific idea”, we wouldn’t have been given such silly cinematic blunders.
I can’t help applying this same frustrating logic to the land of toys. And I have a much more personal reason for thinking about this. As I’ve mentioned before here, ever since we announced that Bif Bang Pow!’s Venture Brothers action figures were going to be retro/Mego-esque in style, the casual and hard-core fans have been up in arms. The decision wasn’t made lightly. When Jackson Publick and I met at SDCC 2009 and discussed the possibilities for the license, we almost simultaneously said we’d like to go retro with the figures. It just felt ‘right’ for the property, but it wasn’t going to be without risk. The dice seem to have been rolled in our favor, because the commercial reaction has been good enough to plan Wave 2 immediately. But we still know we’re not going to make everyone happy right away. I mention all of this as a pre emptive move, because I’m about to trash some action figure lines that to this day make me shake my head in stomach churning wonder.
When it comes to ambition and the end result clashing dramatically, I can’t think of a better place to start than with Doctor Who. ‘Classic’ Who, that is. If ever there was a show with ideas light years beyond it’s extremely limited budget, it was Doctor Who. I stand by it being one of the single greatest concepts in television history, and the more you appreciate the fact that it was born in 1963, the more you have to stand up and cheer: an alien that travels through space AND time in a ship that looks like a police box from the outside but is infinitely vast inside. Oh, and the character can ‘regenerate’ when his life is mortally threatened, leaving an easy way for the next actor to hop aboard when the current one decides to leave. All of that, and it had a budget of about $3.45 an episode. (The fact that it came back in 2005 with a comparatively massive budget and found a whole new generation of fans is a testament to its durability.) So it was almost fitting that when the show got its first true action figure line (and I mean in addition to the limited range Denys Fisher did in 1976), it should be done with what appeared to be a similar budget. Dapol Toys got the license for the program when it was in it’s death throes, which is even stranger, and while they gave it a good go initially, each wave got progressively worse (and at one point there was literally a decade between waves), until it seemed the figures were being made by blind 4 year olds with drug problems. Their initial release of Dalek creator Davros had two full arms, their first try at robotic companion K-9 made him green instead of grey, and when they made the TARDIS console, it had five sides instead of the well established six.
Dapol seemed to milk the license for all it was worth for the few years they had it, until their releases were as shoddy as a Doctor Who set in 1979. They released Dalek after Dalek, with every paint scheme imaginable, including green glitter, and then decided to release a generic Time Lord figure in about 17 variants. By the time the line eventually sputtered and died, they were making non-poseable figures of characters, and clear plastic TARDISes filled with Jelly Babies. Now, I have first hand battle scars from the hoops of fire we have to jump through with the networks and studios we deal with. Nothing we do or make can get released without first massive amounts of scrutiny from us, and then a veritable army of people at the respective studios all making their notes and giving their two cents. The BBC either wasn’t paying a bit of attention to one of it’s most famous brands, or they didn’t care at all because the show was off the air by Dapol’s last couple of years making product. Either way, almost the entire line is cringe worthy.
Summer of 88’s Willow was supposed to be the second coming of a George Lucas Universe. I certainly don’t recall expecting much from it, but I went to see it opening night with some friends and there was definitely a bit of a ‘buzz’ in the air, as if we were about to capture a little something from our childhoods. Was this tale of wizards, monsters, little people and evil sorceresses going to be the next best thing to ‘The Adventures of Luke Skywalker’? Well, no, it wasn’t. In fact, it wasn’t even close. It was silly, unoriginal, and corny throughout. But if I’d been 8, I might have gotten a kick out of it. And, being 8, I would have wanted to get any action figures made to honor the movie. The 3 ¾” scale of figures had been successful for over a decade by that point, so naturally someone would have reproduced this fantasy adventure in the same format with accompanying play sets and monsters, right? Well, sort of. Tonka, whose yellow metal dump trucks were half buried in sandboxes all over the world, decided to get into the action figure business, but instead of making poseable figures of Madmartigan and the gang, they made static army men style plastic statues of all the characters. There were some accessory play sets and the Eborsisk monster to battle, but playability certainly must have been limited. I never quite understood why they decided to go this way, unless it was purely a question of cost. No one else had ever done it for a movie property, and I would have thought that the combination of the dozens of action figure lines that already existed and the stamp of Lucasfilm would have made ‘traditional’ figures the way to go. Alas, it never really mattered in the end, because little Willow Ufgood didn’t spawn any sequels, and the toys died a quick death. But I certainly haven’t seen anyone try to emulate the Tonka Willow model since.
When Dick Tracy hit the screens in 1990, Walt Disney and Warren Beatty were hoping for a Batman sized monster hit and the launching of a franchise. While the film isn’t terrible, it had a long way to go for lightening to strike the way it did for Warner Brothers in the previous summer. Perhaps taking a page out of the same batty merchandise handbook, and bearing in mind that ToyBiz was completely unprepared for the Dark Knight’s toy aisle dominance, Tracy wasn’t going to be caught with his pants down when the companies came calling. Playmates was awarded the license, and they released a bizarre line of action figures that I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to come to terms with. It was obviously aimed at kids, but someone in the design department also seemed to think the actors in the film were either Claymation or perpetually riding horses. The faces were the type that you’d associate with an animated property, and for some inexplicable reason, all of the action figures were bowlegged. Consequently, they looked completely stupid. If there was some functionality for the decision, I could maybe accept it, but there wasn’t and I’m still baffled. They also made two large scale, limited articulation figures of Tracy and Breathless Mahoney (played by Madonna, remember?) which were actually decent sculpts of the performers, so I can’t think why they’d do what they did. I realize Playmates was already the house that the TMNT built, so maybe they tried applying some of that design sensibility to Dick Tracy? Whatever the reason, while the film was a moderate hit, the toy line was a disaster. It was discounted while the film was still in theaters, and it’s only stand out item was the action figure of The Blank, never released in the US, which had a tiny cartoon head sculpt of Ms. Ciccone under it’s mask. For me, Dick Tracy is the perfect “Wtf?” toy line, especially in light of the Batman merchandise juggernaut that came before it. It should have at least been a curiously moderate hit.
One movie that DID take off, but in a way no one was quite prepared for, was 1997’s Men in Black. Yes, Will Smith had already had a mega hit with ID4, and Barry Sonnenfeld had directed two successful Addams Family films, but Men in Black dwarfed all of those accomplishments. Once again, the toy company that got the opportunity to make the plastic goodies sort of came up short. Galoob were no strangers to action figures, but their real strengths were with their Micro Machines lines and micro play sets. They made an extensive figure line for Men in Black, with a couple of vehicles and role-play items thrown in as well. But once again, the action figures seemed to be sculpted with an animated series in mind. They were more static than articulated, and likeness accuracy took a back seat. The aliens weren’t all bad, but the various figures of Jay and Kay, the titular heroes, were awful. They stood as if they were in perpetual motion, and they each had the sort of silly action feature that died out in the late 80’s. I understand that Galoob was thinking of the children and probably had the fact that the film was a comedy in mind in much of the design meetings. But the end result was a garish mess. The packaging looked as if was designed by a contest winner, and they warmed the shelves endlessly after the film came out. Again, I don’t want to completely disregard what Galoob did because there were some highlights, and the big toy gun they made was awesome. But the quality on screen didn’t match the quality on the shelves, and because nothing was done for MIB II, we’ll have to wait for Part 3 to see if we’ll ever get a ‘proper’ action figure range.
I could, of course, go on longer. I haven’t even gotten to Exclusive Toy Products’ James Bond eyesores, and Trendmasters and Kenner’s mutant-ized versions of Battlestar Galactica and classic Star Wars, respectively. But the past 10-15 years have been radical in many ways for the toy and action figure market, and questionable design choices are few and far between these days. It seems that a lot of the lunatics have inherited the asylums, and the right people are in the right positions to guide the projects now. Most of us in the creative at toy companies are making the proper efforts to insure the licenses are treated the right way, and we have the studios breathing down our necks at the same time so we’re doubly careful. Still, every now and then some product comes along and I’m painfully reminded of yesterday’s brain benders. (To protect the innocent, I’ll stop naming names at this point.) As I remarked earlier about being lenient with genre pictures, for the most part I’m willing to overlook the odd goof in an action figure. Because after all, it’s just an action figure, and as we all know, today’s goof is tomorrow’s gold. The toy making process is such a long one, and there are so many stages of development, that there are ample opportunities to catch all the details. When you add up all the other folks that are looking in on the pieces as well, you can sometimes have upwards of two dozen eyeballs scrutinizing the work. So, maybe I’m a little harsher when it comes to the simple things. But I don’t think it’s asking too much to have Sam Raimi get all his actors in a room two weeks before shooting and demand they all take voice lessons from the same guy, and I don’t think it’s expecting too much from a head sculpt of Harrison Ford (one of the most photographed and sculpted men in the world) that it doesn’t make him look like he’s puzzled as to why he’s so constipated. Or maybe we should just let those things go and turn that movie gaffe drinking game into an action figure drinking game. Think about it: if you pick the right toy line, you could turn that frown upside down in minutes.