Netflix documentary The Toys That Made Us delivers a fun, nostalgic history lesson on the billion-dollar franchises
The Toys That Made Us looks back at toys of the 1970s and 1980s
What if you could boogie back down memory lane with all the toys you treasured growing up? Wouldn’t it feel just excellent to chill again with your plastic pals from Star Wars, Transformers, Star Trek, G I Joe, Barbie, He-Man, Hello Kitty and Lego? Or to reminisce about how, back in the day, you could do more voices than Seth MacFarlane – from Jabba the Hutt’s basso profundo to Skeletor’s irritating nasal whine – as you put your figurines through endless drama across the living-room carpet?
Well, as Jambi, the blue-faced genie, used to merrily declare on Pee-wee’s Playhouse – “Your wish is granted!” – as Netflix gets set to mine a mother lode of nostalgia with The Toys That Made Us, an eight-part documentary series starting tomorrow. The series will bring to life the origins of some of the most popular toy lines in history. We’ll meet the minds behind history’s most iconic franchises, who discuss the rise – and sometimes fall – of their billion-dollar creations.
In addition, the series will focus on how the toys were designed and manufactured – and introduce us to compulsive collectors who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, as they excitedly show off what can only be described as private warehouses of the good stuff and much-sought-after rarities, often in the original packaging. Jeremy Konrad, of the website Bleeding Cool, enthuses: “The influence of toys on every person’s life cannot be overstated, and it’s about time a series like this existed. The Toys That Made Us is already my favourite Netflix series – and it hasn’t even aired yet.”
The series is the brainchild of Brian Volk-Weiss, who has been making a name for himself producing comedy specials for Netflix, as well as last year’s 50 Years of Star Trek feature documentary for the History Channel. After collecting toys for 38 years, he became aware that his passion for toys was being badly underserved, so to speak, in the historical archives. “I’ve always been into toys, but that being said, I’ve always been a huge history buff as well. What I started to notice over the years was that, when I’ve been interested in the Second World War, there are 2,000 books about it. I’ve been interested in the Civil War – again, 2,000 books about the Civil War. But I was really into Star Wars toys. And I was really into Transformers. And it’s really, really hard to get information about the toys that we played with when we were kids.
“I’m a huge collector, and before I was a collector, I played with the toys,” he continues. “And I always say, I would have been a dentist or a lawyer if it wasn’t for Star Wars. The only reason I am in Los Angeles now is because of Star Wars. Star Wars made me. I would be a different person without it.
“You ask kids, like some without grandparents, or parents, and they might say something like: ‘Optimus Prime was a father figure to me.’ So we got to thinking and thinking about it, and it must have made sense that the toys we grew up with made us who we are today. We just thought [the title] fit.”
The producer took a dogged, thorough, almost fanboy approach to gathering his footage. “We went to six countries. We went to 19 states. Just in California alone, we shot in seven different cities. So we did not have a problem getting information, or people, or pictures,” he says. “The first episode that we drilled down on was Star Wars. The finished cut is about 53 or 54 minutes – but the first cut was almost two-and-a-half hours long.”
The first four episodes to drop will be Star Wars, G I Joe, Barbie and Masters of the Universe. The final four of the first season – Transformers, Star Trek, Hello Kitty and Lego – will arrive sometime next year. Should Netflix give the green light, Volk-Weiss says he already has more classic toys in mind for a second season.
“Expect to fill in a few gaps in your plaything knowledge; the series dives into lore and trivia. We discover that Barbie has had 180 careers. And that the alpha male of Masters of the Universe, He-Man, originally came with a bearskin cape as well as his battle-axe. And that you better not call He-Man a doll, we’re told: “G I Joe was a doll. He-Man was not a doll – this was an action figure.” And The Toys That Made Us is not all about toys for boys, either. We discover that the petite Barbie doll – first launched in 1959 by American businesswoman Ruth Handler – represented a huge cultural shift.
In deciding which toys were worthy to be featured in the first eight episodes, Volk-Weiss weighed three key criteria: the toy has to have been continuously produced since its introduction; the toy has to have a huge, enthusiastic and contemporary fan base; and the toy’s creator(s) had to agree to appear on the show.
It also becomes evident that such ongoing success is indeed the proverbial licence to print money for the lucky rights holders. Prior to whatever riches The Last Jedi reels in for Disney this holiday season, the earlier Star Wars films made roughly US$7 billion (Dh25.7bn) at the box office – but the toys based upon them have easily made twice that amount. According to another expert quoted in the series: “That’s $14 billion worth of childhood joy that helped shape generations of fans.”
The Toys That Made Us will be the latest series hoping to cash in on the trend towards geek- and nerd-friendly programming – with both terms being used in the most affectionate sense – because producers know that their obsessive zeal for their hobby translates into a rock-steady, loyal viewership.
Other shows in this vein include: Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics – the executive producer of The Walking Dead is first and foremost a comic-book creator. Over six episodes for AMC, this series explores the stories, people and events that have transformed the world of comics, with guests such as Stan Lee, Patty Jenkins, Lynda Carter, Kevin Smith, Famke Janssen, Michelle Rodriguez and Todd McFarlane. Since its 2012 debut on AMC, the unscripted series Comic Book Men dives into comic-book culture through the antics of the fanboys in and around Jay & Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, a New Jersey comic shop owned by writer-director Kevin Smith. Cameras capture the constant banter of the employees and its customers as they collectively discover the pleasures and treasures of collecting.
If you’re into retro gaming, you can’t do much better than My Life in Gaming, a documentary by director and co-creator James Riley. He took a look back at one of the most influential and controversial video games ever made, Night Trap – the campy teen full-motion video horror game of the early 1990s, which drew the ire of the United States Congress for its brutality towards women.
And if you lived in the arcade during your mall-rat years, Insert Coin: Inside Midway’s ’90s Revolution is for you. From Mortal Kombat to NBA Jam (which made $1bn in its first year) to Cruis’n USA, this is the untold history of Midway, the greatest, craziest video game studio of the 1990s. Currently in post-production, this doc is due to be released in 2018 (fingers crossed).
The Toys That Made Us is available for streaming on Netflix from Friday