Or, why is Japan the place to be for Disney collectors?
Anyone who knows me knows that I've been a fan of classic Disney things since I was a wee lad. Now, for the younger crowd, Disney today means "House of Mouse", Video sequels, everything Pooh and maybe Lion King or Beauty & the Beast. For me, though, Disney will always mean Dumbo and Bambi and Pinocchio and The Three Caballeros and Disneyland and Davy Crockett and Old Yeller. It's a big part of 20th Century Americana in my mind, and I'm always amazed at how badly it's treated by American companies today. Of course, part of that is due to the way the company has been handled since Uncle Walt died in 1966. First the old hands carrying on turned out years of lackluster product, then Eisner and company have given it a reputation for both the co-opting and dumbing down of popular culture, and churning out the crap to make a buck. And their licensing dept. obviously doesn't care enough to run quality control on most of their license, or search for unique partners to make good mass market pieces, instead wanting the big bucks that come with partnering with a Hasbro or McDonald's (I leave the fantastic WDCC items out of this since they are very expensive collectibles and not intended for the masses, but the select few). Each new movie brings with it worse toys than the year before, and none of them in scale with each other.
So why is it Japan gets it right time and time again? First they build the incredible Tokyo Disney Seas while we get the utterly misguided Disney's California Adventure (Hey, Ma! Let's pay to take the family to California to see a fake version of it, then leave!). Now while we're overwhelmed with Pixar merchandise and "Disney's Princesses" everything, Japan's toy companies have started turning out everything from very bizarre bootleg toys to wonderful representations of classic characters at a very affordable price. I'm going to take a look at two of these lines. Click on the pictures to see a larger version.
Starting in 2001 during Walt Disney's 100th birthday celebration, Tomy has been releasing an interesting mix of PVC figures at a rate of four to five a month in the Orient. These semi-articulated figures have ranged from the characters of Atlantis to all seven Dwarfs. And they truly are some of the best sculpts I've ever seen of Disney films, and that's saying something. Above is a look at some of the figures in the line next to each other. They are not all in scale as a total line, but are in scale for each subset based on the separate films (Tinkerbell being the one glaring exception; a mini Tinkerbell does come with the Jane figure, not shown here). I've only purchased the figures based on classic films, but they are also scattering in characters from the Pixar movies. I would imagine at some point you'll also be seeing characters from "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and other nontraditional Disney films. To see most of the characters released to date, click here.
So what makes these figures so much better than what's out in America right now? For starters, the Japanese culture tends to respect both toys in general a bit more than folks do over here, and they also have a greater affinity for making the items on model. Here in America, toy companies tend to give their designers, artists and sculptors more personal freedom to put their own interpretation on a character, be it in pose, paint decos, or just plain new details that haven't been seen before. Tomy, however, really hit the nail on the head with these toys, and even went the extra mile to make them great. If you look carefully, almost every figure has some very subtle airbrushing to bring out highlights and shade areas, making the paint jobs much more dynamic than usual. It's so unobtrusive to almost seem like wasted deco (that costs extra money) but it really makes them stand apart. Many of them also come with accessories, but only if it makes sense for the character. For example, Dumbo comes with a Timothy Mouse that sits perfectly in his hat, Prince Charming has a glass slipper and pillow, and Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother come with the mice that help her around the house.
They've also taken care to only include articulation where it doesn't interfere with the look of the character. Some may be disappointed in this, but for me, it's not a deal breaker at all. Above you can see that Ariel comes with a substantial base (and she is removable) and Peter Pan has a flying stand. The Snow White set may be the most involved of all. Each dwarf comes with an item, be it an animal, an ore cart, or the gems that fit inside them. Snow White herself has a little bluebird that fits in her hand, and her arms are jointed at both the shoulder and sleeve cuff, to allow her to rotate the bird in front of her face as if singing to it. Each dwarf also has a removable pick or lantern, and all of their hats are removable. The Prince's hat comes off, the witch has an apple, and the Queen comes with a real mirror! Oh and every figure in the entire line comes with a stand of some sort.
The character choices for the Disney mainstays are interesting to say the least. Above you see Mickey and Minnie from "The Runaway Brain", Soccer Pete, and Pluto from "Canine Caddy". The choices aren't bad, per se, but fairly random. Donald and Goofy (not shown) are from the new game, "Kingdom Hearts" and not even in their classic duds. Personally, I do wish that they would stick to a style or era for the characters without so much jumping around, as it makes it had to have coherent sets until multiple waves down the road. this is the same type of haphazard character selection that DC Direct uses, and that the collectors get frustrated with. But that's a very minor complaint, after all. Back to the great features, if you look at Pooh's feet you'll see a very tiny bee that is included with him and his Hunny Pot. But the neatest feature so far has to be Tigger's tails. Tigger comes with two tails: one normal for when he's standing on his base, and the other all crinkled that plugs into the tree stump to give the appearance of bouncing! Very clever, if you ask me. Below are a few more pictures showcasing this wonderful line:
Some of the included accessories you would never find in the US, either. The Queen from Snow White above comes with a real mirror! This isn't a flimsy piece of mylar (which American toys use for mirrors due to safety concerns)! No sir, it's a nice hefty Real McCoy. To make the right price point, though, the Queen lacks any articulation.
Here you can see examples of the tiny mice that come with Cinderella figures and the Timothy Mouse that comes with Dumbo. The pictures don't do these figures justice; it is astounding how much detail is on something that small.
Above you can see examples of the tiny mice that come with Cinderella figures and the Timothy Mouse that comes with Dumbo. The pictures don't do these figures justice; it is astounding how much detail is on something that small.
And here you can see the dwarf's removable hats, and closer detail on the airbrushing used to give them more depth.
A look at Mickey and Pete, past and present.
Here's a brief example of scale, using one of the recent He-Man figures from Mattel.
One more look at them from a different angle.
Some of these are supposed to be hitting the states thorugh Diamond Comics, but the assortment listing keeps changing. Also, the suggested price isn't that different from the price of importing them from Japan. Check the end of the article for links to online stores that carry these figures.
Now, it would definitely be enough to make me bitterly jealous of the Asian collectors if this was the only current Disney line to knock one out of the park. But no, there is another toy line that puts the American Disney licensees to shame. This time I'm talking about Medicom's "Vinyl Collectible Dolls". In recent years, large rotocast vinyl figures have taken on immense popularity both abroad and here in the states. The largest growing category is "Urban Vinyl" or, rather, made-up characters that have a certain street style to them. However, many licensed characters have been getting the vinyl treatment too (to be honest, hard vinyl characters have been around since the Godzilla and Ultraman figures of the 70s. But only recently have they taken on such a hip cachet). To this end, Medicom Toys have been cranking out Disney figures for the past two years.
Coming in at a bit more expensive than the Tomy figures, these much larger dolls still follow the same type of patterns: mixing old and new characters, limited articulation, random character choices, and absolutely dead-on sculpting and deco. Mickey has multiple shades of gray paint and Tinkerbell's wings are translucent. On average, these character run about $23.00 each, compared to $6.00 each for the Tomy ones (all costs are in US dollars).
As you can see above, the scale is slightly inconsistent. Also not shown are the majority of the choices so far, which come from "The Nightmare before Christmas" and the Pixar films. Most of the poses are taken from iconic pictures that are taken from the films have been shown in many books. These figures are being released at a much slower pace of around 8-12 per year. But it's worth the wait (and Jessica Rabbit is coming out next month! Yow!). The worst part is that they have exclusive figures that can't be bought for every few series. The only way to get one is to send in 3 seals from each series on the correct entry form, then after a few months 1000 names get drawn from the entries and that's who gets one. And you have to be a resident of Japan! This wouldn't be so bad if these were just variants, like most exclusives in the US, but the first two have been Jiminy Cricket and Susie the little Blue Coupe, who will never have another figure! So much for being a completist...
Here's one last look at the scale for all the figure lines.
And finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention one American line that has truly blown me away. Only the richest collector can afford to be a completist on this line, but for the past few years, Disneyland and Disney World have had these "Big Figures" in their in-park galleries. They stand on average almost two feet high, and cost $125 each. The kicker is that according to the box they are shipped in, there is only 300 per character ever made. And once they are retired, it is nearly impossible to find them. The only ones I've ever seen on eBay are currently available ones, and there isn't even a listing of which characters have been made anywhere online. Heck, these don't even have a manufacturer's name anywhere on the figures themselves or the boxes they are packaged in. But boy are they nice! If anyone has any more information on these, drop me a line.
Well, that does it for this time. Go to the links below to see more of the toys discussed in this article. -The ToyOtter
A very special thanks to Darren "Dare" Chia for getting me those great tomy figures!
Tomy's Disney's Magical Collection
Medicom's Vinyl Collectible Dolls
Disneyland Big Figures
To purchase the Medicom and Tomy figures, try either HobbyLinkJapan or Goblin Toys.
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