Toys. We all had them as kids, and we’ll all buy them for our kids in the future. And that’s precisely the emotional sweet spot that Netflix is aiming for with its new documentary, The Toys That Made Us. A look back at the tales behind each familiar figure and shiny accessory that’s adorned living rooms for decades, it’s a veritable treasure chest of trivia and unexpected commercial insight.
The show kicks off, fittingly enough, with Star Wars, taking us back to before George Lucas’ saga had become a cinema titan. As the first film arrived in 1977, Lucas was savvy enough to see the potential for a merchandise tie-in, but had no clout to persaude anyone in the industry to take a gamble on something so out there. Hasbro said no. Mattel said no. But Kenner, a tiny firm in Cincinatti, said yes, in a deal that was so informal it wasn’t even written down beyond a mere handshake – and left them with a favourable contract, taking the vast majority of every dime spent. When Star Wars rocketed to success, though, their ambition left them playing catch-up with demand, unable to make anything quick enough to sell. The solution? Sell an empty box to kids for Christmas, so they could start building their collection set when the figures would be ready – and spend money on those too.
It’s that kind of thinking that has since become the norm, and Netflix’s series reveals just how much Star Wars changed the world – not just the movie world, but the toy world too. Now, people expect to be able to buy characters and objects from their favourite films and shows – and with sales of Star Ways toys alone hitting $14 billion worldwide, it’s a business that’s booming.
That’s partly thanks to the continuation of such underhanded tactics, from slapping new stickers on existing toy lines and reselling them to hacking up and melting down failed figurines to make new characters. But The Toys That Made Us isn’t a bitter show, and balances out the cynical, commercial side of the industry with charming creative innovation: Jawas, we discover, started out with their designer improvising a hood with a brown sock.
He-Man and GI Joe both bear the weight of Star Wars’ influence, and the former, in particular, is a fascinating case study that stretches through generations. Repeating the catchphrase “I have the power” at every opportunity become an intentional strategy, attracting new fans through the characters’ empowering attitudes. At the same time of the over-arching attempts to keep He-Man, we get the fun of seeing the underdog creative team at work, building Castle Grayskull from scratch, only to have to resculpt the whole thing because the doorway wasn’t tall enough for its hero to fit in – and the amusing way the TV show transformed the toy line into something camp with a sense of humour, much to its creators’ surprise. (The live-action film is a wonderful anomaly to rediscover.)
Barbie, meanwhile, gets a welcome starring episode, which charts the myriad ways the iconic blonde doll has been reimagined over the years. The gradual, overdue makeover of Barbie to someone who can reflect a diverse, modern world is satisfying to witness, and the recognition paid to founder Ruth Handler is deserved, as she pushed a message that Barbie showed girls could do anything. But there’s also some gleefully cruel corporate sabotage at play, as Mattel fought to undermine and dominate other dolls from rival companies – and, in one notable case, couldn’t thwart the rise of Bratz.
Barbie’s presence helps to stop this becoming a man-fest for genre geeks, but the TV show has the right kind of reverence towards its entire subject: when boys are saddened by girls suddenly getting She-Ra figures to play with (also allowing them to say they “have the power”), we’re asked to chuckle rather than sympathise with them. Donald Ian Black’s narration sets the mood appropriately, wise-cracking in between every bout of exposition – supported by some superbly witty editing, which keeps everything fresh and dynamic. Talking heads happen, but so do re-enactments, Photoshopped pictures and an opening credits sequence that parodies old toy cartoons with a gloriously cheesy grin. All that and a big helping of novel and rejected toy figures that collectors may not have heard of? This entertaining, informative documentary series is a Toy Story for all the family.
The Toys That Made Us Season 1 and 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.