A long weekend ago, in a toy store far, far more crowded than I had anticipated (Toys “R” Us Times Square, though I really should have known better at that point), I checked out Destination: Star Wars—The Exhibition, which showed off Star Wars toys past and present. It closed this past Monday, but photos of all the exhibits can still be found online. Besides the opportunity to see vintage Star Wars toys, it was worth visiting because located over in its own themed corner of the store were all the new toys launched in anticipation of the upcoming, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
So I spent the evening bouncing back and forth between classic and contemporary Star Wars items. Not being a historian by trade, it’s rare that I get the chance to look at old and new toys nearly side-by-side, and I couldn’t help but notice ways in which current Star Wars toys are different—and the same—as their counterparts from decades ago. Here are some of those observations:
• You want action figures? Take your pick: Back when the first Star Wars came out, Kenner released a line of 3.75-inch action figures of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, etc., as well as what the toymaker deemed “large size action figures.” But that was about it. Fast forward to the present, however, and you’ll find a whole range of Star Wars: The Force Awakens figures that goes beyond just two sizes. Just typing in, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens action figures,” at a retail web site, as I did here, turns up 3.75-inch figures, 6-inch figures, 12-inch figures, 18-inch figures, even whopping 48-inch figures from companies such as Hasbro, Jakks Pacific, Creative Designs, and more.
All of the different figures are indicative of just how profitable the license is expected to be, given that multiple licensees have effectively signed on to compete against one another. One assumes they’re thinking, “Even if we aren’t the No. 1 Star Wars action figure company this holiday season, just having the license likely assures us of a certain amount of sales.” It’s a far cry from when one licensee dominated the license in the action figure market, and consumers had to make due with whatever it delivered.
• Still at the cutting edge of tech: There was a time before the prevalence of home video, in which a toy from Kenner was one of the few ways to get anything resembling a home version of Star Wars. The Star Wars Movie Viewer, which you can read all about at this site, offered kids 45 seconds worth of clips straight from the film. That might seem downright prehistoric by today’s standards, but this was the late ’70s, before VHS was widely available and building one’s own video collection could be done easily and relatively inexpensively.
Back then, there was also a Star Wars licensed electronic game from Kenner, which seemed to be a kind of electronic Battleship-type game. This was when the Atari 2600 video game console was considered cutting-edge! Both this game and the Star Wars Movie Viewer were on display as part of the exhibition, bundled together to show that Star Wars was at the forefront of then-contemporary toy technology. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, that is still the case: One need only look to the interactive Jedi Master Yoda and Darth Vader Animatronic Interactive Figure, from Spin Master and Thinkway Toys, respectively; the various R/C products under Spin Master’s Air Hogs banner; and the app-enabled BB-8 droid, from Sphero, for proof.
• Star Wars may have been Star Wars, but it wasn’t yet STAR WARS: A turquoise Yoda mask? It’s difficult to imagine a toy licensee getting away with miscoloring the legendary Jedi master, but that is exactly what happened back in 1977, courtesy of Ben Cooper. Obviously, between then and now, the toy industry has changed a lot, whether that’s companies coming and going or manufacturing moving overseas. But another change is that Star Wars has successfully evolved from a movie that drew huge crowds to theaters into a full-fledged licensing juggernaut, bringing greater quality control and oversight with it (which probably began well before The Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm in 2012).
Yet no matter how much Star Wars toys have changed—or stayed the same—over the years, they’re still highly in demand, which is a testament to how enduring the films and overall franchise are. As we approach the holiday season, I am tempted to say, May the Force be with Star Wars, but the combination of nostalgia and a new cinematic release should be enough to keep the toys on top.
As I mentioned earlier, you can still find images of all the toys from Destination: Star Wars—The Exhibition, at this official Toys “R” Us press release.
Kari Love contributed to this article.
For more commentary from Phil, check back often. Views expressed in this column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Toy Book as a whole. We hope that you will share your comments and feedback below. Until next time!