The Power of the Force Fridayby Todd King, contributing writer
We're past the midway point in the year so that means the toy-marketing machine is revving up. For Star Wars, it's beginning now with new tie-ins to the cartoon series, Forces of Destiny.
Of note are three figure packages featuring Rey and Leia. These are not the usual action figures we see in the 3.75-4-inch scale but are just under the 12-inch scale. These are modeled after the heroines' animated appearances and are highly detailed. Their costumes are changeable and come with several accessories, including sidekicks like BB-8, R2-D2, and even Wicket, all of which are excellent sculps. It is pretty cool to see tie-ins that are just for a series of online cartoon shorts. Being a kid of the 1980s I almost always expected any kids shows, especially cartoons, to have related toys—so I think it's interesting to see products related to this series that isn't one of the big productions like a TV show or a feature film. However, these are just a taste of what is to come soon.
In two weeks and one day from today, Star Wars will begin selling the first of its new wave of toys. September 1 is the next "Force Friday," where store shelves will start displaying new action figures, toy vehicles, playsets, and assuredly some LEGO collections, too, to coincide with the next movie, The Last Jedi. The event will get plenty of attention on the web, with hashtags and blog posts aplenty. Stores will likely hype the sale and prepare aisles with displays and line-up markings for the many patrons who will get there hours beforehand. This day will continue to get bigger and more hyped every year, especially since Lucasfilm and Disney are putting out a new Star Wars movie every year. It used to not be like this back in the day; of course, we didn't used to have a new film annually.
In the beginning, the foresight of the Force wasn't with Kenner. No one, including the toy company, was prepared for the massive success of Star Wars. They didn't have enough toys to meet the huge demand the movie created. They weren't short-sighted; they were just like everyone else and caught off-guard by the popularity. But Kenner didn't hide away or lock their doors. Instead, they promised that toys were coming to all who wanted them, and created the "early bird" certificates, which in hindsight look like a prototype of a "pre-order," which included a display stand where the action figures would eventually stand.
Once they got the toys rolling the following year after the film's release, it was a massive sensation. The toys were made for playing with their colorful designs, scaled playsets, and action-figure-ready vehicles. Star Wars and Kenner had set a new standard in toy design and production.
As a kid, it was a joyous occasion to get new a new Star Wars action figure. When I or my brother or my friends would get one the package would be ripped open and the play would begin. At the time, we weren't thinking of collecting or of future value—the time was now for taking our figures onto great adventures and fierce battles. We would pick our teams amongst the figures we all had and set up bases among the furniture; one base on the couch, another under the table, and still another behind a box or bean bag. It wasn't always re-creating scenes from the movie. Often, our toys journeyed into stories from our imaginations, some of which were wild tales of alien worlds. The galaxy of the movie and its inhabitants were a fertile ground for young kids' minds. Above all, it was just fun and the toys were designed for these purposes.
Although there were three years between the original movies, there was a steady stream of new toys throughout those years that kept our interest in the franchise the entire time.
Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, and again, new figures and toys were released in conjunction with the new movie. But Jedi was to be the last film for a long while, and in 1984 and 1985, interest in Star Wars merchandise was on the wane, especially as new toy franchises were popping up including G.I. Joe and Transformers, to name a couple. In 1985, the last wave of figures came out to try and breathe whatever life was left in the toy line, but this set, called "The Power of the Force," did little to spark the interest in kids. Most kids had moved on to other toys—and besides, these final 17 figures were mostly unspectacular, and so the toys from the galaxy far away quietly disappeared from shelves.
For 10 years, there was next to nothing related to Star Wars, whether it was toys or movies. We kept hoping Lucasfilm would come through with what we believed was a promise that the origin story movies—more specifically episodes 1, 2, and 3—would be made. Suddenly, but quietly, new Star Wars action figures appeared in 1995 on store shelves. These were all new designs for some of the original characters. Without much more information to go on, fans began to speculate. The presence of the toys, to us, could only mean one thing: that indeed the new films were coming ,and these action figures were the sign we had been waiting for. We weren't very wrong. In 1997 the Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition came to theaters, and it confirmed that the prequels were on their way. Without much Internet presence in 1995, all this hype and anticipation began with the toys.
These figures in the mid-'90s seemed to take into account that most of the original fans of Star Wars had grown up and so these weren't just for playing, but were also for collecting. It didn't take long for this toy line, titled "The Power of the Force" on the packaging (and dubbed by fans as "The Power of the Force 2" to differentiate it from the 1985 wave), to create variant upon variant of the characters that seemed to be aimed at collectors.
The early ones featured muscle-bound sculps popular at the time, but later made the same characters with new designs and more movie-accurate appearances. Some of the toys re-released some of the ones from earlier in the line, like the Speeder Bike for example.
What is most fascinating to me about these figures from 1995 is that it's speculated they were used to gauge interest in Star Wars in the new marketplace. Hasbro, who had bought Kenner in 1991, was met with great positivity since fans/collectors bought them up. Whether this success actually convinced Lucasfilm to go ahead with new movies is speculative but it certainly helped, I believe.
So when 1999 rolled around and The Phantom Menace was on the horizon, there of course were new toys with it. Unlike the original film, the first of this new trilogy release the first wave of its toys before the film even came out to theaters. In what could be viewed as a kind-of "Force Friday," there was a particular day and time the items went on sale and I was there. It wasn't a media event by any stretch. Word of the opening of the sale was found somewhere online and some stores had some soft announcements about it. I was at a Walmart where a few fans gathered near the toy aisles that had been blocked by tape and ribbons. When the time came, probably midnight, the handful of us there got our eyes and hands on some of the new stuff.
I was an adult at this time, so why was I in line to get these toys as early as possible? I believe were ready to wallow in nostalgia and with Star Wars, that nostalgia includes the toys. We wanted that feeling again of getting new toys like we were kids again and get first dibs which we only dreamed of when we were young. For Hasbro (which had dropped the Kenner name by this time) and Lucasfilm, I'm guessing the purpose of the early rollout was to get early buy-in from fans who would be happy with new figures and for the first time, have Star Wars LEGO sets! Star Wars had become the first intellectual property to be licensed by LEGO.
Since this time, "Force Friday," has become a much larger thing since The Force Awakens and the next one coming up will be similar to the one I had back for The Phantom Menace: fans waiting in anticipation for the new movie, grasping for a bit of nostalgia, finding new items for their ever-expanding collections, connecting with other fans, and kids discovering this new playground for their budding imaginations.
That's optimistic of me since most of those in line I know will be collectors but at their heart, toys are things that connect us in a way to the movie we love; they give us a way to take it with us whether it is for collecting or for playing. It's part of the fandom. It's part of any entertainment experience even in Disney parks. When we leave them on those sad last days we want to take it with us and the way we do that is with toys or other objects on which to attach our memories. Whether those objects are pins or plush Mickeys, if they are linked to place or experience we love, they become more than mere souvenirs. As adults or kids, for nostalgia or play, toys not only serve as reminders but can be memory-makers.