Ever since “Star Wars” launched the merchandising craze in 1977, movies and toys have had a tight-knit relationship.
A major part of any summer blockbuster, after all, is the effort to rope in younger audiences with action figures and play sets based on the movie.
Recently, though, it seems like Hollywood has stooped to new lows by adapting anything and everything with name recognition into massive, effects-heavy movies with A-list talent, such as Academy Award nominee Liam Neeson in this weekend's release of "Battleship" (very loosely based on the Hasbro board game of the same title).
This current wave of movies based on toys is not entirely new, though, and in a way — as with many pop culture trends — it can all be blamed on George Lucas and the “Star Wars” phenomenon.
As He-Man creator Roger Sweet describes in his book “Mastering the Universe: He-Man and the Rise and Fall of a Billion-Dollar Idea,” in 1976 a young Lucas had approached Mattel to make a line of toys based on his upcoming sci-fi throwback. In what proved to be a fateful decision for the company, however, Mattel said no. The “Star Wars” license instead went to rival toymakers Kenner, and for the next few years, Mattel frantically worked to create a new line of action figures that could help them recover from their mistake and compete with the explosion of “Star Wars” merchandise.
Enter He-Man (circa 1982). A mix of Conan the Barbarian and Luke Skywalker, He-Man was designed by Sweet, a Mattel employee, to be as generic as humanly possible — a symbol of power that “could be taken anywhere and dropped into any context,” as Sweet says of his brainchild.
In a bit of genuine cross-marketing innovation, though, Mattel hired animation studio Filmation to produce a cartoon series to flesh out the new line of action figures. In the process, Mattel shattered the convention that toys had to be based on films and TV series — never the other way around.
Throughout the 1980s, other toy companies followed suit. Hasbro re-launched a line of military figures from the 1960s called G.I. Joes, this time scaled down from the original 12-inch dolls to 3 ¾-inch (like the “Star Wars” toys). With the collaboration of Marvel Comics, the Joes were given backstories adapted from an aborted project involving the eyepatch-wearing S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson’s character in “The Avengers”). The Marvel G.I. Joe comics were then spun off to create the syndicated TV series “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” in the mid-1980s
Hasbro repeated this cross-market approach with another successful franchise, the Transformers.
He-Man, G.I. Joe and the Transformers each took a crack at feature-length films in the late 1980s, as well — the latter two as bigger-budgeted animated movies and He-Man as a live-action sci-fi fantasy starring Dolph Lundgren and Academy Award nominee Frank Langella (retitled “Masters of the Universe”). None of these achieved much success, though. “G.I. Joe: The Movie” never even made it to theaters.
Two decades later, both the toy industry and Hollywood have completely transformed. In the early 2000s, toymakers like Hasbro began to suffer from the hot-and-cold public interest in movie tie-ins that would leave them with warehouses full of unsold stock. To combat this, they decided on a new approach: Begin developing movies based on their own products in order to retain more of the profits.
Hasbro’s first experiment, 2007’s “Transformers” (along with its two sequels), has since gone on to generate more than $2.5 billion in box office alone, so clearly there is an audience for movies based on toys.
“Battleship” is the next step in this experiment. Without a built-in fan base or preexisting backstory like “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers,” “Battleship” — if successful — could pave the way for the next batch of movies based on even less filmable toys, many of which are already in active development, including films inspired by Monopoly, Candy Land, Stretch Armstrong, the Magic 8-Ball and — no joke — even Slinkys.
As long as the money is there, Hollywood will continue to make movies based on anything with even a hint of nostalgia and recognizability. This doesn’t mean moviegoers should be too quick to dismiss the trend, though. Remember, everyone mocked the idea of basing a movie on a theme park attraction before “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”
Let’s just cross our fingers for the best Stretch Armstrong movie possible.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.