From the day he leaves the Shire to the moment the Ring is cast into Mount Doom, Frodo Baggins does not change his outfit in the Lord of the Rings movies. And yet, between 2001 and 2005, Toy Biz managed to produce 13 clearly distinct and movie accurate Frodo figurines. 13 different Frodo action figures is a lot of Frodos. Arguably, too many Frodos to have in one toy line based on one movie trilogy.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.
But that was very much the point. Those 13 Frodos redefined the action figure just in time for a new crop of toyetic blockbusters to dominate the minds of collectors and kids alike. That’s right: Lord of the Rings toys even taught Star Wars a thing or two about action figures.
Yet today, the company is gone, having shuttered years before The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey graced screens in 2012 and the new trilogy’s toy license fell to a competitor. The story of Toy Biz and the Lord of the Rings has DC Comics on one end, Marvel Studios on the other, and a middle filled with lasers.
Shadow of the past
Before landing the Lord of the Rings movie license, Toy Biz was best known for superhero action figures, crafting some DC Comics toys in the late 1980s before entering into a long-term agreement with Marvel Comics in 1993. The two companies were closely connected, with Toy Biz owner Ike Perlmutter serving on Marvel’s board of directors, and when Marvel faced bankruptcy in 1997, Perlmutter and his business partner Avi Arad kept the publisher afloat by merging the companies into Marvel Enterprises. Toy Biz served as Marvel’s in-house action figure manufacturer from then on.
Handling Marvel’s sizable catalog of characters proved to be an asset for Toy Biz when they pursued the Lord of the Rings license. New Line Cinema, according to a news release at the time, wanted an innovative toy line for their “incredible range of highly-unique fantasy characters,” and Toy Biz had the necessary experience. The company had also developed a good relationship with New Line when they made action figures for the Blade movie franchise, so despite strong competition from other toy manufacturers, Toy Biz won the rights to capture the “depth, spectacle and appeal” of Tolkien’s world.
Everyone at Toy Biz took these words to heart, and embarked on a journey that many in the company would later call “the highlights of our careers.” As development began in 2000, the action figure industry was in a state of flux. The biggest line in terms of sheer scope was Hasbro’s Star Wars toys, but the small 3.75 inch figures offered little in the way of detail or articulation. Many manufacturers were moving to a six inch scale because of these shortcomings, with mixed results.
Some, like McFarlane Toys, with lines based on Akira and Spawn, had impressive detail but poor articulation. Others, like Toy Biz’s own WCW wrestling line, were making strides in articulation but lagged behind in realistic detail, with obtrusive ball joints and painted-on costumes. For Lord of the Rings, Toy Biz aimed to set new standards for scope, detail, and articulation, all at once.
The making of the Fellowship
To do so, Toy Biz partnered with Gentle Giant Ltd., a 3D scanning and modeling company, to get three dimensional scans of all the Lord of the Rings actors, one of the earliest uses of this new technology. Gentle Giant had worked with Star Wars previously, but the small scale figures didn’t fully communicate what the machines could capture, and Toy Biz aimed to make the most of the enhanced level of detail.
Representatives from both companies traveled to New Zealand and met with every actor, in full makeup, leading them through an array of expressions as laser scanners revolved around their heads to capture their facial likeness. Toy Biz also worked closely with Weta Workshop, and had access to their 3D scans of the film’s intricate weapons, props, and costumes. All of these 3D images went into a highly detailed base model, allowing toy sculptors to craft action figures that were nearly true to life.
Toy Biz made strides in materials as well. Most action figures at the time were just hard, shiny plastic, with costume details moulded into the figure core. For Lord of the Rings, every figure had a hard plastic core base, but softer plastic pieces were layered on top to give more dimension. They were textured to replicate the look and feel of fabric, adding both realism and flexibility to coats, capes, and robes. Finishes were matte or glossy, depending on the fabric being replicated, to further enhance this realism.
At the time, action figure lines based on live action movies were a negotiation of opposing needs: A more screen-accurate toy, appealing to the collector, would have to sacrifice mobility. But a more articulated toy, better for play and posing, would have to sacrifice accuracy. Toy Biz’s line featured an array of joints that fit almost seamlessly within each figure, while accessories like sheathes and quivers were carefully crafted to fit each individual toy without inhibiting its articulation.
They had a wide range of movement without taking away from their lifelike appearance, allowing one toy line to offer both playability and collectability. Toy Biz also wanted the line to stand out in stores, and crafted unique half moon packaging with a specific color scheme for each film. All of this effort and innovation was available for the same low price as any other action figure when the first wave of The Fellowship of the Ring action figures hit stores in 2001.
The line focused on the main Fellowship initially, which immediately revealed one of the unique challenges of adapting the Lord of the Rings movies to toys: Hobbits are small. Frodo’s first head sculpt was a bit severe and inconsistent from figure to figure, and the articulation was minimal, compared to his larger companions. But Toy Biz’s second Frodo, released in the next wave a few months later, featured a new and improved head sculpt, along with additional elbow and knee joints that became standard for all of the small scale figures moving forward.
From there, the line expanded quickly, improving with every wave as the company worked its way through The Two Towers and Return of the King. They sold very well, and large online communities developed around the toys as fans discussed their collections, marveled at the detailed work, and discussed their hopes for future lines. Toy Biz’s sculpts grew more elaborate and the character choices became more creative, especially for Frodo. After making several variations of his standard costume, a translucent Frodo recreated his invisibility when he wore the ring while a Frodo in orc armor captured a scene that wasn’t even in the theatrical cut, only the extended edition.
The close of a film trilogy would typically mean the end of the action figures based on it as well, but Toy Biz pivoted to the “Epic Trilogy” line, reissuing old figures alongside scores of new ones to fill in even the smallest remaining gaps, all in new, slimmer packaging. The company had already produced seven distinct Frodo figures, and in the two years after The Return of the King hit theaters it made six more, including a webbed up Frodo who was included as an accessory with Gorbag (one of over twenty orcs and Uruk-Hai immortalized in action figure form).
Such was the scope of the line. Toy Biz went big, releasing a massive Treebeard in scale with the rest of the figures, and it went small, capturing the briefest of moments from the trilogy’s epic runtime. A figure for Galadriel’s dark form as she was tempted by the ring during her “All shall love me and despair” monologue. A figure for “Entranced Bilbo” that recreated the frightening split second when he lunged for the ring in Rivendell. Even a figure for Theodred, Prince of Rohan, and all he did in The Two Towers was die. Nearly 150 distinct action figures were released over a five year span.
And the standard set by those action figures, in detail, scope, accuracy, articulation, and technological innovation, still reverberates today. Larger, super-posable figures became the norm at McFarlane, where toy designers now combine detail with articulation in series like their DC Multiverse line. Even Hasbro’s Star Wars line got in the game with their Black Series figures in 2013, using many of the same techniques Toy Biz pioneered. (Though, sadly, the company has since relegated 3.75-inch Star Wars figures to a specialized Vintage collection, and didn’t even bother with a full line at that scale for The Rise of Skywalker.) Toy Biz’s innovation is a new normal.
Unfortunately, Toy Biz didn’t survive to see it. After taking over Marvel, Perlmutter and Arad set their sights on filmmaking, and Marvel Enterprises became Marvel Entertainment in 2005. Although Toy Biz had utilized the Lord of Rings line’s innovations in their Marvel Legends figures, improving the collection, Perlmutter and Arad licensed the Marvel rights to Hasbro the following year. Hasbro continued Marvel Legends with the same style and techniques, and later applied those methods to the Star Wars Black Series. Meanwhile, Perlmutter and Arad had no use for their own toy division anymore, and Toy Biz was shuttered.
Bridge Direct landed the toy license for The Hobbit trilogy in 2012, but the new line offered only a handful of flat, lifeless figures that paled in comparison to the realism and breadth of Toy Biz’s offerings, and it quietly fizzled out. There were no Bridge Direct Frodos, either, despite Elijah Wood’s cameo. Toy Biz would’ve been all over that. Diamond Direct acquired Gentle Giant Ltd. in 2019, and recently launched a new Lord of the Rings action figure series that’s garnering positive reviews, though they’ve only announced seven figures thus far — and just one Frodo.
Only 12 to go!
Tim Hanley is a comic book historian and the author of Wonder Woman Unbound, Investigating Lois Lane, The Many Lives of Catwoman, and Betty and Veronica: The Leading Ladies of Riverdale.