Sunday, October 16, 2005

Toys 'R Them

Well, I didn't get very far through the "He-Man" DVDs -- childhood nostalgia can take one only so far through these Filmation cartoons where every character sounds the same and the identical walk cycle is re-used approximately every three miliseconds. I can definitely see why I liked it as a kid, and why kids would still like it: It's full of magic. There's a magical occurrence almost every minute, many characters have magical powers of some sort, and the episodes revolve around magical McGuffins (the pilot episode is called "The Diamond Ray of Disappearance"). Kids love magic. I don't know why networks don't remember that when they make children's programming: a story full of magic will attract more kids than some drab little story about who gets to go to the school dance.

While I didn't get nostalgic for "He-Man," I did kind of get nostalgic for the great demon of the '80s: cartoons based on toys. You may recall that from the late '60s up until the early '80s, there were FCC standards in place effectively preventing commercial products from being part of the actual content of a show; these standards were relaxed in the early '80s, allowing companies like Mattel to finance television shows based on their toys. "He-Man" was the first and crassest of the bunch; Paul Dini, a writer for "He-Man," stated bluntly: “He-Man was a half-hour toy commercial. I hate Peggy Charren but she was right. Selling the product was the sole reason for doing that show.”

Certainly that was Mattel’s sole reason for doing the show. The story goes that they had originally intended to do a Conan the Barbarian line of dolls, until they realized that it wouldn’t be appropriate for children, and introduced a more kid-friendly alternative to Conan: a blond, muscle-bound warrior on a rather retrograde planet, who wore a minimum of clothing and carried a large plastic sword on his back. The concept lent itself fairly well to television – you had a hero, a picturesque setting, lots of villains to fight, and a concept that sounded violent without actually being such. So it was a good deal for Mattel, which got advertising for a rather bizarre toy line, and Filmation, which got a show.

"He-Man" inspired other toy companies to get into the act. I think the most bizarre of the many, many Advertoons of the '80s was "Rubik, the Amazing Cube". My heart goes out to the poor writers and animators who were told to come up with a cartoon starring a cube. Solution: if you put Rubik together in the Rubically-approved, uni-colored way, he gets magical powers and talks with a funny-accented voice: "Rubik feel tired now!"

But the thing is, doing a cartoon based on a toy is not, in itself, a bad idea. Children's action figures, are designed with stories in mind: who are the characters, how would they interact, what kind of situations could you imagine them getting involved in. A good action figure line is one that kids can make up lots of stories for and with lots of good possibilities for character relationships; it's not such a stretch to say that TV writers could see these characters and also come up with stories for them. Put aside the question of whether it brainwashes kids into wanting to buy the toys -- as I recall, the "hard sell" of the commercials made me want to buy my parents for toys much more than the extremely soft sell of the toy-based cartoons -- and it doesn't seem like such a bad source of material, if the material does indeed lend itself to a series.

The best of the toy-based cartoons were two shows based on Hasbro toys aimed at girls: "My Little Pony" and "Jem." The worst was probably "The Popples", from a line of plush toys that could be folded up into a ball. The show sort of exemplified the problem that arises when you have a line of toys that doesn't lend itself to storytelling, and when the toys are so bland that the stories you can tell (without hurting the toy's image and pissing off the toy company) are limited. The Popples existed for only two possible purposes: to hug (in doll form) and to toss around (in ball form). They were, in short, the friendliest dolls on the market, a refuge from all those violent action dolls. And that meant that the show had to be equally friendly and cute.

So The Popples had one plot and one plot only: the Popples make a mess, and then they clean it up. But, the Popples being “friendly” toys, they couldn’t even make a mess in an aggressive way; they just had to accidentally spill clothes or bowling pins or something. And then, just before the adults came back, the Popples would produce a bunch of whimsical tools and clean everything up just in time – much like the Cat in the Hat, except without the elements of menace and malice that make the Cat entertaining. But what else could the writers do? The Popples weren’t allowed to face off against villains, or battle threats, or anything that might have meant doing something aggressive; they had to be the most non-threatening characters in the world, because the toys were supposed to be the most non-threatening toys in the world. So the writers were left looking for a way to produce conflict without anyone to conflict with, and without anyone behaving badly. With those limitations, it’s something of a miracle that they even came up with one plot.

But something that happened just as often, if not more, was that the toy would set a standard that the TV show couldn’t live up to. Quite a lot of imagination and creativity can go into the making of a toy, after all. And sometimes that imagination and creativity wasn’t carried over into the TV version.

And that brings us back to "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe." Because of their origin as “Conan the Barbarian” knockoffs, Mattel’s He-Man figures were based on an unusually dark concept for kids’ toys: heroes battling truly ugly, scary characters for control of a big, terrifying-looking edifice called Castle Grayskull. The commercials for the toys portrayed He-Man’s world as a scary place where kids could live out their violent and scary fantasies: battles, swordfights, mysterious castles with trapdoors, horror-movie villains with names like “Skeletor” and “Beast Man.” It was like a slightly less Teutonic Conan fighting the cast of a Universal horror movie, and it was pretty intense.

The cartoon series retained the characters and the Castle Grayskull set; it had to, because that was what Mattel was trying to plug. But there would have been no way to retain the darkness of the toys’ concept, not under the restrictions of network Standards and Practices. So while the characters still had the basic characteristics that the action figures were supposed to have – He-Man was strong, Skeletor was evil, Beast Man was brutish and dumb – there was little of the darkness or horror that boys conjured up when they played with those figures. The TV He-Man wasn’t a fighter in a barbaric world populated by scary villains; he lived in an orderly society, Eternia, with a nice King and Queen ruling over a bunch of similarly nice people. And even Castle Grayskull became a friendlier place, as it became the home of the show’s representative of “good magic,” the Sorceress. Instead of battling He-Man for control of Grayskull as they did in the toy commercials, Skeletor and his other bad guys lived in a separate society, Snake Mountain, and tried without success to get into Grayskull, just as other bad guys schemed to get into the Smurf Village.

So again, we had the reassuring message of most Saturday morning cartoons: bad people don’t walk among us; they’re completely separate from the place where the good guys live, and they can never get into the good guys’ hangouts. That’s an important and reassuring theme of a lot of kids’ entertainment – if the good guys on the show don’t need to worry about the villains invading their homes, then we don’t need to worry about some bad guy coming into our homes, maybe even at night while we’re sleeping. But that wasn’t what the toys were about; the toys were based on the theme that the bad guys are out there and you have to fight them everywhere, even at home. A cartoon series that had that theme would have been interesting. But it would have been too dark to get on the air.

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