What the bald eagle and Elvis Presley are to the U.S., the Blue Heeler is to Australia. A “Bluey” is more than just a type of dog: It’s a cultural icon, thanks in part to the skyrocketing popularity of Bluey, a kids’ show about a family of pups who use their imaginations to inspire lessons in make-believe.
Debuting in Australia in 2018, the animated series follows a 6-year-old Blue Heeler puppy named Bluey; her 4-year-old sister Bingo; and her parents, Chilli and Bandit. In each episode, Bluey uses her boundless energy to play elaborate games that result in heartwarming and hilarious lessons.
Following a successful launch down under with Ludo Studio, BBC Studios helped bring Bluey stateside in 2019 with a cross-platform Disney debut in the U.S. Bluey is now thriving with two seasons available to stream on Disney+ and DisneyNOW, and perhaps more to come after season three rolls out in Australia.
“When we met with Disney, what was surprising was that a lot of people in America didn’t know what a Blue Heeler or a ‘Bluey’ was,” says Daley Pearson, executive producer at Ludo Studio. He explains that Australians have an affinity for Blue Heelers because they seem to represent the best parts of Australia: They’re loyal, hard-working, and energetic.
“They love families, they’re insanely playful, and when they’re puppies, they’re even more insane. And all of that lined up with the personalities of a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old, so it really did work … with where Bluey and Bingo are at.” Bandit, the father in the series, is even based on the series’ creator Joe Brumm’s family dog. “It’s always surprising how personal Bluey is, which is quite resonating,” Pearson says.
Although it’s designed with preschoolers in mind, Bluey is meant to be a co-viewing series — a show that parents and kids can watch together. The way to do that successfully is through humor, according to Pearson. “I think the sense of humor is definitely in there, which I hear is traveling really well,” he says. “I think in Australia, and I’m sure America has a lot of this as well, no matter how tough things get — and the episodes are about tough stuff — there’s always room for joking, laughing, and brevity. That’s definitely something that has gone into Bluey.”
For example, the “Copycat” episode shows Bluey coming to terms with the death of a bird after she finds it in a garden. Bluey then reenacts the scene by putting her sister Bingo in a box as if she’s dead and driving her to the pretend vet (their Mum) in her ride-on car.
“It’s an incredibly heavy and moving episode, but it’s also hilarious. It’s one of the funniest episodes,” Pearson says. “The combination of the sweet and sour is very Australian and is also very Bluey.”
Aside from humor, gameplay is the real backbone of the show. The creators had a clear vision to make it about gameplay from the very start. But, it wasn’t such an easy idea to pitch to a studio, Pearson says: “It’s not about a comet heading to Earth. It’s not about superheroes or a kid bitten by a spider. There’s no big logline behind it. It’s very Seinfeld-y when you explain it. Bluey is really just a show about playing games.” But, all they had to do was get started, and the seed of gameplay started growing into so much more.
Gameplay can cover so many topics, from kids role-playing what they want to be when they grow up to experiencing their first emotions. “Gameplay is a kid’s first draft of everything,” Pearson says. “These games are real. It’s not a game to a kid — and especially not to Bluey and Bingo — and mom and dad really support that. It’s the kids’ first draft of experiencing collaboration and responsibility — all the things that are tough to grapple with.” It’s the first draft of dealing with tough concepts as well, like turning to games and imaginative play to process the loss of the bird in the “Copycat” episode.
The parents in the show are also a great example of what many parents strive to be in terms of taking an active part in their kids’ lives. “Bluey and Bingo’s dad and mom buy into their gameplay and their kids’ conceit of the games,” Pearson says. Bluey’s use of big, adventurous storytelling can help emotionally prepare kids to face the world.
“These games are as real to them as this interview is to me or as turning up to work is,” he says. “There is room when you’re young for this imaginative gameplay, where you learn all the human stuff before learning all the book stuff. And I think that’s something that really hit home with a lot of families.” Bluey opens up a wave of communication for parents to connect with their kids through play, which is what the show is all about.
TURNING MAKE-BELIEVE INTO TOYS
It is safe to say that this overarching motif of gameplay translates well to an acutal line of toys. Australian-based Moose Toys is the global master toy partner for Bluey, capturing hearts with charming figures, playsets, and plush toys that help bring the show’s imaginative spirit into kids’ hands.
When creating the initial Bluey range, the team at Moose Toys wanted to make sure that fans felt like they were immersing themselves in the world of Bluey and becoming a part of the Heeler family, says Moose Toys’ U.S. Head of Preschool Stephanie Haggerty. “The range is focused on what we call the ‘For Real Life’ moments, which are core to the Bluey DNA and celebrate the joyful simplicities of everyday family life,” Haggerty explains. Fans can collect and role-play with figures of key characters, such as Mum, Dad, Bluey, and Bingo, as well as their cousins Muffin and Socks. Kids will also recognize familiar Bluey settings in playsets, such as the multilevel Bluey Family Home, and mini-playsets that hone in on specific locations, such as Bluey’s Playground or Bingo’s Playroom.
AUTHENTICITY IS KEY
“I think with all product development that is derived from content, authenticity is absolutely critical,” says Suzy Raia, vice president of consumer products at BBC Studios. “When you deviate from what kids love about the characters and their stories, then you lose the magic that is really connecting the audience to your property. We always strive to find unique ways to stay true to the show, its core attributes, and its characters, because what’s beloved on-air has to be beloved in-store in order to inspire a purchase, and then, of course, play.”
Moose Toys highlights the Australian elements of the show without letting the details get lost in translation. For example, the Bluey Heeler 4WD Family Vehicle features a steering wheel on the right side of the car rather than the left, just like it would appear in Australia. “A really wonderful added bonus is that Moose Toys is an Australian company, and they really understand what that means and how those nuances can play into content and then be translated into toys,” Raia says. “So we know they can take our little Blue Heeler family and translate the core attributes of the show nicely into toy play.”
This summer, Moose Toys will launch the Pool Time Playset, inspired by an episode called “The Pool,” in which Bluey and Bingo call their Mum boring, but then forget to bring her “boring” bag of pool essentials for a day of fun of the sun, leaving them stranded in the shade until she saves the day. The set features the characters in their swimsuits and includes the must-have pool toys and accessories that the kids wished they had in the episode, including unicorn floaties, an inflatable doughnut, a diving board, and more.
“We wanted to make sure kids had toys that they could use to recreate their favorite moments they love so much, as well as inspire them to create their own new, fun adventures,” Haggerty says.
IMAGINATION AT THE FOREFRONT
Pearson says that the Bluey toys and merchandise are just as important to the creators as the show itself. It’s important to him for the toys to be open-ended to give kids the opportunity for interpretative play as opposed to rigid figures that don’t do anything. “In Bluey, they make a taxi out of cardboard. It is a very organic show where anything can be anything,” Pearson says. “That mindset is really in every toy that we have and every book that we have. It’s really important for us that anything to do with Bluey opens up gameplay and doesn’t put a lid on it.”
Bluey’s licensing program continues to grow as more partnerships make their way over to the U.S., including puzzles and games from Spin Master’s Cardinal Games division, books from Penguin Random House, apparel from the Bentex Group, bedding and home decor from Jay Franco, dining and home goods from Zak Designs, and holiday decor from Kurt Adler. All of these items will be available by the end of the year so that families can bring even more Bluey home.
Kids and parents see themselves in the characters and their everyday adventures, which is appealing to both groups. Both the series and the down-to-Earth simplicity of the products rely more on inspiring imagination and family bonding than hiding behind ornate distractions.
“We’ve had a lot of feedback from people saying ‘it feels like there’s a recorder in our living room recording us’ and then we just transcribed that for the show. And I wish it was that easy,” Pearson says. “These stories just seem to be ripped out of the pages of parents today.”
While the heart of Bluey may be Australian, the themes are universal. Luckily for all of us, family, imagination, and gameplay have a global passport.
A version of this article was originally published in the February 2021 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!