Sunday, 13 September 2020

Plastic Galaxy - The Story Of Star Wars Toys

Figuring Things Out

Plastic Galaxy -
The Story Of Star Wars Toys

USA 2014 Directed by  Brian Stillman
X-Ray Films

Plastic Galaxy - The Story Of Star Wars Toys is a documentary which I wasn’t aware of until it caught my eye online while I was searching for something else. Now, I did have a lot of different toys when I was a kid... probably a lot more than most, truth be told... but the original Star Wars figures which, actually, didn’t come out in the UK until quite a way into 1978 and with availability of a lot of those early figures being staggered from month to month, were obviously a huge thing in my life when I was a ten year old, partial to all things Star Wars. So of course I was going to watch this thing.

The documentary starts off with a quick round of talking heads from the majority of the interviewees in the film as collectors and ex-employees of Kenner, the company who put these things out in the US (it was Palitoy who had the licence for the Kenner figures here in the UK) saying just how inspiring these toys were to all the kids and how much they changed the face of the market. This kind of serves as a prologue to the rest of the documentary which, to be fair and like a lot of documentaries, is mostly more talking heads as various interview subjects answer questions which are bundled together into themes.

The film is split then into seven parts and, although not completely creative in the way it’s made as a lot of more modern documentaries of late have been, it’s certainly as entertaining and informative as you would want it to be and, at no point, is anyone less than enthusiastic about their experiences of the time.

Section one, entitled A Long Time Ago... 1976, looks at the toy market prior to Star Wars and, thankfully, mentions that there were at least some franchise toys being dealt with... it highlights specifically the old Mego Planet Of The Apes action figures and also Kenner’s other one shot, pre-Star Wars, tie in toy, the popular action figure series based on the TV show version of the Cyborg novels, The Six Million Dollar Man. It briefly backtracks to 1947 and the birth of Kenner toys and then it talks about how, after all the other toy companies had passed on the right to merchandise this new Star Wars movie, they signed a deal with George Lucas and co just one month before the movie was released. Their mission was to get a few toys, posters etc out in time for six months later with the Christmas market. However, when the employees were taken to a preview screening of the movie, the creative people got fired up... they knew this was a phenomenon and, once the box office figures started coming in, they had to ramp up to get action figures out as quickly as they could.

And, as many fans know, the figures weren’t in shops for Christmas but one of the interviewees here is the very man who came up with the bizarre and fairly successful idea of launching an Early Bird Pledge Set, which was basically a sheet of card which stood up in front of a little plinth and the promise that the people who bought this would be sent the first four figures in a six month window starting February 1978. When you think about it, for the time and when you are facing a Christmas where you’ve not developed your proto-types fast enough to get them out in time, this was a kind of brilliant marketing idea which, frankly and as far as I can see, has now become the norm now when you think of modern day crowd funding and kickstarter marketing.

The second section is called Heroes In Miniature and it looks at the way the figures were designed, sculpted and manufactured. Lots of the collectors have some wild things from early moulds to early concepts and bizarre items which either never went to the marketplace or which, sometimes did but were quickly withdrawn. For example, the lightsabre wielding characters such as Luke Skywalker in that early bird set had slightly different versions of those lightsabres. Everyone probably remembers that the little lever under Luke, Vader and Kenobi’s arms would allow the plastic lightsabre beam to telescope out of their hand but, some versions of those early figures had ‘double telescoping’ sabres, where the thin part could be further pulled and extend out even further from the end. Not too many of those about but, here you can see them.

The next chapter, Designing The Galaxy talks about how Kenner, after the enormous success and expansion of their company due purely to this particular licence, went the extra mile and started making vehicles and play sets to support the figures so the customers could make their own Star Wars universe. It doesn’t mention that the UK Palitoy version of the Death Star was completely different but far superior to the US one... but then again, most if not all of the people talked to here, seem to be either American or Canadian so, maybe that’s not so surprising.

They also talk about the camaraderie and the creative atmosphere at the company, even though the rate at which these things needed to be conceived and finished put a lot of pressure on the staff. There’s some interesting looks here at things which were thought up but never made it to execution. Also, it’s a shame that this documentary is a little too old to know that the Imperial Troop Carrier, which was actually a non-movie toy, made as something else to sell to the kids, finally made it into the real Star Wars universe by appearing in episodes of The Mandalorian (reviewed here).

The fourth chapter, Marketing Imagination looks at the ways the toys were marketed with such things such as voucher schemes and send offs for rare figures etc. I still have all my original figures in the loft and I felt a pang of nostalgia when I saw one of the collectors pull out their ‘send away’ Bobba Fett from the little, white, unmarked box that mine came in when I sent away for it back in 1980/81. Also, we get the guy who photographed the toys for various box shots, packaging and catalogues of the time and it looks at the way these things were lit and composed. One of the photographers even shows us the old camera he used, which would already have been an antique back in the seventies.

Travel Through Hyperspace is a short but sweet look at the way these toys were packaged and sometimes modified for overseas markets such as Japan. Palitoy finally gets a mention here as being the people who came up with the ‘multi-language’ backing card which would have the title of the film in English, French and Spanish all on the same product. Which would be a way you save on the cost of printing in these countries, I guess.

The End Of The Line looks at the way the company had to go from being the ‘small fish in a pond’ to being one of the major players in toys during that period. It then segues into how, when the original trilogy finished in cinemas with the promise that no more would ever be made (that obviously changed at some point), the customers kind of lost interest and the company profits on the line just kinda fizzled out. I remember I had all the figures (still do, in the loft with my Millenium Falcon) up until about the end of the first wave of the Return Of The Jedi figures...and I kinda lost interest for a while too. Seems I wasn’t alone.  Everything was pretty much over by 1986 and then, later on, Hasbro bought out Kenner.

Star Wars Is Forever shows how Hasbro, almost inadvertently with their release of Star Wars Bend ‘Ems figures (I only had DC Bend ‘Ems when I was a kid in the 1970s) allowed them to discover, decades later, that the Star Wars market had revived and how the toys and various variants became popular once again.

And there’s not much to say other than that. Plastic Galaxy - The Story Of Star Wars Toys is only 67 minutes long but it’s a really entertaining movie, particularly if you happened to be around at the time and remember buying and playing with these epic toys. Not sure how younger viewers would react to this but those interested in the history of modern movie merchandising and marketing might find it interesting, for sure. Glad I watched this one... now if only they would release it as a cheap Blu Ray, I could give it some shelf space.

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