Merchandising has become one of the most important elements of mainstream filmmaking. Before a studio commits to bajillions of production dollars, it usually wants to know what kind of ancillary markets are available for income no longer guaranteed by ticket sales. Walk into any Target right now, and the only aisle that doesn't have something with Jack Sparrow, Shrek or Spider-Man plastered on it is probably the adult diaper section (and give 'em time).
Toys may well be the most common type of movie merchandising. But what happens when the marketing plan is reversed? "Transformers" may be the biggest-budgeted film to originate as a cheap chunk of plastic (see " 'Transformers' Stars Dish On Sexy Robots, Kissing Scenes In Virtual World"), but it's certainly not the first. Let's take a look at the short history of movies based on toys.
One could argue that the first toy-to-film character was Raggedy Ann. The rag doll created by illustrator Johnny Gruelle in 1915 for his daughter became a book character in 1918, coinciding with the mass-manufacturing of the doll (the birth of synergy?). In 1941, Ann was joined by brother Raggedy Andy in the first of a series of animated shorts by the Fleischer Studios. Decades later, 1977's "Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure" marked the first time a consumer toy was the star of a theatrical motion picture. The film has a retro-surrealist vibe that has more in common with "Alice in Wonderland" than what was to follow.
For the most part, the toy-to-film phenomenon (if one can call it that) was a product of the plastic, flashy '80s, starting with 1985's "The Secret of the Sword." It's an animated spinoff of the "Masters of the Universe" action figure/ TV show in which Prince Adam is reunited with his long-lost super-sister, She-Ra (not She-Woman?), Princess of Power. "Sword" was actually a number of episodes of the "She-Ra" TV show edited together to create a full-length movie, and the flaws in the cheap animation are even more glaring on a giant screen.
That same year saw "The Care Bears Movie," in which the jolly denizens of Care-a-Lot try to convince some gloomy kids that life is better if you only show you care — and buy a stuffed animal with a symbol on its belly. The darn thing grossed $23 million, launching a TV series and two movie sequels, 1986's "Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation" and 1987's "The Care Bears Adventure in Wonderland," which was not full of allusions to psychedelic drugs (unless you wanted it to be).
Also in 1985, "Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer" pitted the flying-horse-riding moppet dressed like a bad '80s pop star against an evil princess out to destroy all color in the world. Both Rainbow Brite and the Care Bears were initially created for use on children's greeting cards, but the toys followed in short measure (and heralded the TV cartoons).
Similarly, 1986's "My Little Pony: The Movie" dealt with a resentful witch creating "smooze," a slime designed to turn the ponies' pastel-colored world gray and make their perky personalities sullen. In retrospect, considering how garish the '80s were, we can't help but wish at least some smooze had taken over.
Stepping outside the cute box for a minute, let's talk giant automatons. Michael Bay's extravaganza isn't the first time the robots in disguise have taken to the big screen. A 1986 animated "Transformers: The Movie" tried to take advantage of the lack of kid-TV censorship by adopting a much darker tone, which involved having one character swear and killing off numerous Autobots, most notably the fan-favorite Optimus Prime, voiced by Peter Cullen, whose baritone also appears in the new film (see " 'Transformers' Fans Wanted Peter Cullen — Not Clooney — To Voice Optimus Prime"). The movie is infamous for being the legendary Orson Welles' final job. The "Citizen Kane" auteur never lived to see the finished product (not that he would have cared to). Perhaps America wasn't ready for the more extreme Japanese style of animation: The PG-rated movie fared so poorly at the box office that the studio sent "G.I. Joe: The Movie" straight to video and the world never saw the planned Jem and the Holograms film.
The first toy to be turned into a live-action film was 1987's "Masters of the Universe," with Dolph Lundgren donning the loincloth and broadsword of the action figure known so laughably as He-Man. In the film, He-Man and a few Eternian pals are accidentally transported to Earth to save money on set design by the producers, er, the Cosmic Key and have to find a way to return to their world and defeat Skeletor before he gains the power of Grayskull. Frank Langella plays the arch-villain, adding to an enormous geek résumé that includes "Dracula," "Star Wars," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," "Sherlock Holmes," "The Mark of Zorro" and "Superman Returns."
The boom came to a close in 1988 with the release of "Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw." Set during the 1950s, it's a flashback story of how Marvin McNasty plans to steal the Bone of Scone (which grants "puppy power" to dogs — and cats, too, for marketing purposes) and use it to take over the world. By this time, even the most patient parents had no doubt had their fill of these poorly animated advertisements — at least on the big screen. The new destination for this kind of product was home video.
There have been a few holdovers from that era. "Rescue Heroes: The Movie" (2003) — based on the Fisher-Price toys about a squad of everyday heroes including firefighters, police officers, forest rangers and, uh, construction workers — almost seemed to have made it into theaters by accident. A few weeks after its release, it was available on home video. The same thing happened last year when "Strawberry Shortcake: The Sweet Dreams Movie" (which was not an animated remake of the Patsy Cline story) snuck into a few theaters before quickly coming to DVD.
And home video is really the perfect format for most of these movies. What adult wants to sit in a theater and actually have to watch this stuff for 90 minutes alongside a squirming, yowling tot when you can just toss a DVD in the player at home and leave the little rugrats alone with their advertainment?
No, it seems the future of toy-based films in the multiplex is more along the lines of "Transformers." Appeal to nostalgia, make it big, make it (sorta) grown-up — and, OK, sell more action figures (both to kids and adult collectors). August sees "Bratz: The Movie" transforming those tarty dolls into live action. And in 2009, He-Man makes a movie comeback in a big-budget film rumored to be using CGI backgrounds and effects à la "300" (with presumably as many exposed rippling male abs). But we're most excited for Richard Linklater's "Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper: The Motion Picture," an R-rated psychodrama starring Matthew McConaughey and Rosario Dawson.
Maybe we're joking. Maybe we're not. The scary thing is, it's possible.
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