There’s an excellent documentary series on Netflix called “The Toys That Made Us” that breaks down the fascinating histories behind the titan franchises of the toy industry.
Like so much of popular culture these days, the series is catered to nostalgic children of the ’80s like myself, taking a walk down memory lane with the likes of “Star Wars,” “He-Man,” and in recent weeks, Transformers and Legos.
Watching these episodes, you realize that the series isn’t exactly a tribute to long-extinct products. Most of this same stuff is on sale today, in some form. So much that I started to wonder if stores were carrying anything new on their shelves. We complain a lot about Hollywood’s lack of originality; could the toy aisle have the same problem?
To find out, I stopped by a local big box retailer to inspect their toy section. Predictably, most of what I found was tied to some kind of major movie franchise. There was lots of “Star Wars” stuff, all kinds of Marvel and DC toys, and plenty of merchandise from Disney, My Little Pony and Barbie.
There were Transformers from both the original era and the awful Michael Bay films, and for a fleeting moment, I was tempted to fork over $20 of my grown-up bank account for a recreation of the Autobot Jazz. Instead, I wound up buying some protein bars and grapes, like the responsible adult I’m pretending to be.
I didn’t see any GI Joe or “He-Man” toys, and I was kind of surprised that there weren’t any “Harry Potter” toys. Movie-wise, we’re kind of between phases, but in many ways J.K. Rowling’s wizard world felt like the heir apparent to “Star Wars” and “Transformers.”
There were a few “new” lines, like Mattel’s ghoul-themed Barbie riff Monster High and a disturbing series of animal-human hybrid dolls called Enchantimals. And technically you can argue that a lot of the Disney stuff from say, “Frozen,” is new, even if it’s part of a long heritage. But most of what I saw had roots that went back decades.
I remember back when the “Star Wars” prequels were gearing up for release and how excited I was to see all my old favorite toys back on the shelves. At the time I thought I should buy up a bunch of them to make sure I raised my future children on “proper” toys, but now I wonder: do kids love “Star Wars” because “Star Wars” is wonderful, or do kids love “Star Wars” because “Star Wars” is all we give them?
Being exposed to “Star Wars” in all of its merchandising glory helped me unlock my imagination as a child and eventually steered me into creative pursuits like writing and photography as an adult. Kids today deserve that same inspiration, but it doesn’t need a “Star Wars” or Marvel logo to get the job done. And as much as “Star Wars” might bring generations together — I was lucky enough to have parents who loved the movies as much as I did — I think kids today deserve to forge their own paths. They deserve the excitement of discovering something new. Something without baggage.
Maybe this is just franchise fatigue talking. Clearly it would be nice to cut down on some of the rabid behavior that is chasing innocent actresses off social media, and perhaps a brand new universe could emerge free of expectations.
Still, there’s a good reason “Star Wars” toys and Legos and Barbies have been so successful for so long: They’re quality toys. And as long as they make money, they’ll stay on the shelves. Just remember that for all its joys, nostalgia is a double-edged sword. It’s one thing to want to share something valuable with the next generation; let’s just make sure it isn’t about clinging to a childhood that we think we can’t live without.