A couple of weeks ago, I headed down to Las Vegas to attend our first Licensing Show, and to see if there was anything that might catch our eyes to add to the Bif Bang Pow! arsenal. One of the meetings we had was to discuss Edgar Rice Burroughs’ near 100 year old Lord of the Jungle, Tarzan, and the ‘ol ape man got me thinking. In these troubling economic times of down sizing and minimizing our lives, there’s a fitting trend in the toy world that’s long been missing, perfect for 2010: the mini play set. Fifteen years ago you couldn’t walk into a toy store without dozens of options to choose from. And many of the little worlds on big cardboard backing cards were made by the same company at one time, a company that stood loud and proud for a brief period, but made some gems that still impress to this day. Come with me now through the plastic scented mists of time and let’s revisit an old friend, Trendmasters.
OK, I know what you’re thinking right away: “Didn’t they make those crappy action figures for Independence Day?” Why yes, Timmy. Yes they did. And yes, they were crappy. Wait, I’ll revise that statement, the HUMANS were crappy. They were huge, the likenesses were so far off they were hilarious (Jeff Goldblum was built like a linebacker) and they all came with an arsenal of weapons each. But the aliens, those were cool, remember? They looked just like they did in the flick, their limbs were bendable, and their heads split open and a little bendy ‘pilot’ alien fit inside. They made a giant alien figure too, and I remember it did all sorts of stuff and made suitably alien sounding noises.
They also made a couple of different mini play sets, shaped like those same alien heads. When you opened them up, suddenly you were in the Area 51 hangar, with a mini invader ship and a green plastic tube that a teeny little alien could fit in. Neat! As everyone knows, the movie was a smash success, so the toys did quite well. Which was good for us, because it meant Trendmasters could go out and get more licenses. I may be a little off on my timeline, but here’s a smattering of what came next: Lost in Space, Austin Powers, Forbidden Planet, Mars Attacks!, The Iron Giant, Battlestar Galactica, Godzilla (‘classic’ and new movie) and Tarzan: the Epic Adventures. Those last two titles took me completely by surprise when they hit back in 1996 or so, and I was thrilled the first time I came across them. I don’t know about the history of Trendmasters nor do I know anyone that was ever associated with the company. But I’ll bet that somewhere in the creative department was an ubergeek, because the care and detail given to the mini play sets for the ‘classic’ Godzilla and Tarzan lines is amazing.
They must have picked up Godzilla in anticipation of the new film, and as a run up they made all kinds of different items: action figure style, large scale, wind-ups, even ones that ‘hatched’ out of eggs. All were movie accurate, some with roars and sounds from the classic films. (In hindsight, these are kind of a ‘no brainer’ for this property, since making the creatures too much bigger would mean having to make more space consuming play sets.) There were three different play sets: New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In each one, the big green guy and a different monster duke it out and destroy the cities in the process. I have the San Francisco set, and it’s like a tiny 3-D representation of a Godzilla movie. There’s a section of the ‘water’ that swivels open so you can see the underwater lair of Godzilla, the Golden Gate bridge straddles the two halves of the play set and has ‘break apart’ action, there’s a fighter jet that rests on a runway, and the SF skyscrapers all ‘break’ at their bases to come crashing to the ground. There’s also an oversized cannon with a big ‘ol missile, but it kind of takes away from the authenticity of the set. Then, when you’re all done having a mega war, ‘Zilla folds up into a super cool face, with clear red eyes. All the pieces fit neatly inside the two halves, for easy storage and transportation.
Tarzan: The Epic Adventures was a syndicated tv series from 1995 or so, produced in Canada, I think. I remember seeing a few minutes of it, which was about all I could handle. Why the good people at Trendmasters felt compelled to add the series to their roster of talent, I have no idea. But I have a hunch that it was down to that one intrepid Burroughs fan in the licensing department, who used the possibility of the show being a ‘Hercules/Xena’ like success to finally bring the mythology from the Tarzan books to plastic life. Once again, they went all out: bendy figures, action figures, figures with sound, large scale figures with sound, and some mini play sets. All of the different lines were color coded, to reflect different ‘series’ and locales. Yellow was the ‘Jungle Series’, blue was the ‘Earth’s Core’ series, and red was the ‘Mars Series’. (That detail alone already makes the toys better thought out than 90% of what hits stores today.) What was especially cool about this line was its inclusion of characters from John Carter of Mars as well. To my knowledge, this was the first and only time Carter and his co-stars made it to the toy world, and I’m pretty positive they never showed up in the TV series.
Now here’s where my theoretical intrepid fan in the licensing department got to go hog wild. There were three mini play sets, and each is more detailed than the next: Treasure of the Lost City, Temple of the Mahar, and Valley of Bantoon. All ripped directly out of the pages of those old books. I’d bet dollars to donuts there wasn’t a kid alive who knew what the hell any of those places were, or that the Kaldanes of Mars could walk around without their heads, but boy, the toys sure were cool. Check out the Valley of Bantoon:
OK, so when it folds up it’s just a big Tarzan logo, not as cool as Godzilla’s head. But still, look at that set up! There’s tiny figures of Tarzan, John Carter and a Kaldane (with itty bitty removable head!), Carter’s ship (which fires a missile!), the Man-Tree man eating plant (good thing too, with a name like that), a ten legged Banth (!!!), a Kaldane tower with a slide up entrance, a rope ladder, Sompas Trees and a dungeon. Take that, Ewok Village! I love the little thing, and think it would have been very cool sitting in on the design meetings for these sets. There’s a ton of imagination and ingenuity at play here, done with a lot of love and care. Most importantly, the pieces and sets themselves are well made, with neat paint jobs and great little monster sculpts. I see so little of this on toy shelves today, it reminds me of the cereal aisle. I sound like a 10 year old, but have a look next time you’re at the market. There are maybe one or two brands that come with a cool toy inside the box. Used to be you’d get a cool toy, a cut out game on the back, and if you saved enough box tops, THEN you could send away for the free super cool Colonial Viper Pilot Play Set. Today you either get a bag of Skittles or the opportunity to buy a mini soccer ball with the Trix logo on it.
I should say at this point that I’m not being fair to other companies that made similar sets back in the day. Kenner did an amazing run for the Batman and Superman animated series, Galoob did wonders with Star Wars, Toy Biz made several Spider-Man sets, and a UK company called Bluebird made my favorite of the bunch, a Doctor Who Dalek micro play set. But the Trendmasters stuff was head and shoulders above the rest. I’m also not unaware of the mini play set world these days, I do see these little suckers occasionally popping up in licensed toy lines. Cartoon Network’s Secret Saturdays is the first that comes to mind, they’ve made several, and even better, they’ve made the Saturday’s ship, with loads of playability. Packs of mini figures are sold separately to fill up the ship and different sets, and they’re all great. Hasbro made some as well for this summer’s blockbuster sequel Iron Man 2: the heads of Iron Man, Iron Monger and the yet to be released War Machine. They’re great pieces, but there’s little to nothing going on inside the sets, and once again, I see them and instantly think of Trendmasters and the beauty of what once was.
We’ve always knocked around the idea of making mini play sets for a couple of our licenses. I literally start to drool when I think about the different Flash Gordon scenes we could make, finally getting to produce some of those amazing ships and other characters we never got around to making as action figures. And just imagine The Venture Brothers possibilities!! It’d be a super cool way to get to all the locations and characters we’d want to see in one fell swoop. There seems to be room for all ranges of action figures these days, so maybe it’s time to think small and go mini. If we do decide to give it a go, we’ll be using those sets from yesteryear as inspiration. I never got to say it at the time, so I’ll do it now. Thank you, Trendmasters, for caring just that little bit extra and allowing us to hold different worlds in the palm of our hands. Nobody did it better.