If you’ve run out of holiday classics to snuggle up with during holiday vacation, allow me to recommend The Toys That Made Us, a new documentary series on Netflix. Don’t let the first episode’s opening scene of a low-budget historical recreation put you off. This is a serious documentary about iconic American toy lines, including Star Wars, Barbie, He-Man and G.I. Joe, and it is absolutely worth your time.
The first four episodes are up on Netflix right now, with the promise of four more to come in 2018. Each nearly hour-long program is crammed full of on-camera interviews with the principal designers of these major toy lines. Their commentary lifts the veil on how characters like Snake Eyes and Skeletor became household names. The level of access that the research team was able to get is astounding. Subjects include former CEOs of major toy companies and even members of the legal teams that negotiated historic licensing agreements.
What makes the program so interesting is that all four of the episodes on Netflix right now focus on the disruptive force that Star Was had on the toy industry.
The story begins with a tiny company in Cincinnati, Ohio taking a bet on the unproven science fiction franchise, and moving heaven and earth to get toys out as quickly as possible. That first episode is also the story of the sweetheart licensing deal that Kenner was able to negotiate with George Lucas, who had been turned down by every major toy company in the country. It ends with that deal expiring, and Kenner’s new owners at Hasbro scrambling to get it back. It even features the company’s former CEO admitting that he screwed up the deal when he was forced to renegotiate with Lucasfilm years later.
The second episode is a bit of a departure, and deals with the Barbie toy line. But Star Wars still looms large. Highlights include the airing of much of the dirty laundry in Mattel’s long and at times seedy corporate history. It includes behind-the-scenes stories of scandal, fraud and corporate espionage. But the best part of the episode is the intimate conversations with the generations of women that have shepherded Barbie through the decades.
The main arc picks back up with the He-Man episode that follows. You can watch the first few minutes on Facebook.
I was given an awful lot of He-Man stuff as a child, and watched nearly all of the cartoons. It never occurred to me just how batshit crazy the entire storyline was. After this program it all began to make sense.
The final episode available right now focuses on G.I. Joe. It’s a toy line that goes all the way back to World War II, so if you’ve got extended family in the house right now this would be a great place to start. At its core is the emotional tale of the Hassenfeld family that founded Hasbro. It also contains the tragedy of the man who gave birth to G.I. Joe and agreed to sell it off for a song.