Entries in Hasbro (2)
From about 4 to 14 years of age, Kenner Star Wars action figures were just about my favourite things in the world. They were Star Wars. In the pre-internet, pre-DVD, even pre-VHS era, actually seeing Star Wars and its two sequels was not that easy for me, especially because I grew up in a small town with no repertory or second-run cinemas. I eventually managed to see each of the three films countless times, but until about 1983 (when cable TV first came to Canada) I could easily go for months, even years without seeing a stormtrooper or droid--except the three-and-three-quarter-inch versions manufactured by the Kenner toy company of Cincinnati, Ohio. Action figures and playsets became, almost immediately, my principal means of experiencing Star Wars.
Kenner quit making new figures around 1986, three years after Return of the Jedi. It is easy to assume that the lack of new films is what killed Kenner's Star Wars line (and eventually Kenner itself). But I think there is a deeper explanation. The market of Star-Wars-mad children which Kenner tapped so successfully in 1978 consisted mainly of three to six year olds boys. By 1986, that demographic was entering, or well into, adolescence. Playing with dolls, or any sort of toys, was becoming much less interesting to Kenner's audience. Some of us moved on to other, more mature interests. Others of us still loved Star Wars figures but were smart enough to keep it quiet in case the kids at school—especially the girls—found out. There was no shortage of other three to six year olds for Kenner to sell to, of course, but they were not rabid Star Wars fans. They had their own interests: GI Joe, He-Man, Transformers, and various other non-Kenner properties. Kenner was spun off by its parent company, General Mills, in 1985 and slowly began to fade away. It was acquired by Hasbro in 1991 and disappeared as a distinct brand in 2000.
Disappeared, that is, until last year when Hasbro launched a new line of Star Wars action figures replicating Kenner's trendsetting cardback-style packaging and displaying the distinctive blue-and-white Kenner logo. It was hardly the first time Hasbro had released Star Wars action figures. What made this line-up different was the pretend revival of Kenner in the products' marketing. There was, of course, only one reason to pitch a new line of Star Wars figures this way. Despite the "Ages 4 and up" tagline on the top left corner of every blister pack—exactly where Kenner put it in 1978—the target market for these new toys was not children. It was nostalgic thirty-something suckers like me whose hearts involuntarily leapt upon seeing new Kenner Star Wars action figures for sale. Hasbro's eye for marketing detail has been superb. The first wave of new figurines features stickers placed prominently on the front of each card reading, "FREE BOBA FETT" and offering buyers the chance to exchange five proof-of-purchases for the legendary Rocket Firing Boba Fett action figure—a figure Kenner promised a generation of children in the late 1970s by means of a similar mail-away offer but never delivered due to last-minute fears about the safety of the rocket. No one under 30 would recognize this new Hasbro promotion as what it was: a nostalgia-laden throwback to our long-gone childhoods. Clearly these toys were not aimed at five-year-olds. They were aimed at their fathers.
At first I was determined to resist. I'm 38 years old. How could I justify to myself, let alone my wife, buying a Star Wars figure? Yet every trip to the grocery store, with its small but alluring collection of "vintage" figurines, was a temptation. I kept wandering into the toy section, just to have a look. Then I found web sites like Bantha Skull where the new figures are displayed in minute detail ("toy porn", I have seen it called). In a stroke of evil genius, Hasbro is anachronistically marketing characters from all six Star Wars films in this Kenner style, a ploy that momentarily ingratiated even me to the prequels. I got over it almost immediately but the fact that it happened at all is incredible.
I eventually admitted to myself that I was going to buy one of these new “Kenner” figures. It was, as the man said, useless to resist. I decided upon Rebel Fleet Trooper, nearly the first character the audience sees in Star Wars yet a figure which for some reason Kenner never produced. But I could not find Rebel Fleet Trooper at the grocery store. I even stopped in at a real toy shop once, but still could not find it. I discovered that the figure was selling online at twice its retail price or more. For some reason Hasbro refuses to keep up with demand. Finally I lost my patience. While picking up cold medicine for my three-year-old daughter, I grabbed a Luke Skywalker (Jedi Knight) from the drug store's small toy section and hoped the cashier would not ask me why. She didn't. I stuffed the contraband into my laptop bag and left it there overnight so that my wife wouldn't see. She probably would have only laughed a little, but I was embarrassed and did not want to have to explain. I did not really know what the explanation was.
When I got to work the next day I closed the door to my office, pulled out the hidden figurine, and admired it in the box. I briefly contemplated leaving it there, unopened, "mint-in-box" as the true collector nerds say. But that would only make a silly situation sillier. So I tore the plastic from the cardback and, after quite a struggle—these new figures are very securely packaged—extracted Luke and his accessories. The likeness was very good, certainly much better than in the Kenner days. Furthermore, the figure had joints everywhere: shoulders, elbows, wrists, waist, knees, even ankles—a complete contrast with Kenner's figures, which could only march straight-armed and straight-legged like toy soldiers (which is, after all, what they were).
But there was something off about this figure. What it gained in articulation and likeness over the Kenner figures it lost in playability. I could not imagine my children playing with such a figure. It was too dainty. The hundred or so Kenner figures packed securely in their Kenner carrying cases in my basement had been subjected to hundreds of hours of punishing play, yet most were intact and even well-preserved. Their thick hands and inflexible limbs made them durable. This new Kenner figure, however attractive, felt fragile. It was not so much an action figure as an inaction figure, suitable for display only.
I should not have been surprised. To convince a 38-year-old man to buy an action figure was already an accomplishment on Hasbro’s part. To persuade him to play with it would be a perverse sort of miracle. Just as Hasbro did not intend to sell these figures to children, it did not intend that anyone actually play with them. I didn’t buy Luke Skywalker (Jedi Knight) to play with it. I bought it out of sentimentality. For that purpose—if sentimentality is a purpose—these new Kenner/Hasbro figures, or at least those derived from the original trilogy, are very apt. But they're not really toys.
If I ever do come across a Rebel Fleet Trooper at the grocery store, I will probably buy it. Please don’t tell my wife.