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RECOMMENDED: "THE TOYS THAT MADE US" ON NETFLIX
Documentaries about the business world in the era before the massive international mega-corporation have a special kind of charm today. We're so used to everything being focused grouped and market researched, of having all the sharp edges sanded off of products before they ever reach the marketplace, it's easy to be wistful for a time when everything seemed a bit more cobbled together. The "Star Wars" that we experience today is the product of thousands of Disney employees working in close collaboration for years; it has essentially nothing in common with the original movie created by a few dedicated, clever professionals under the guidance of a single visionary filmmaker.
Today, when you hear about the birth of new must-have gadget, the story tends to be mundane. Amazon was working on voice-assistant technology at the same time as they were shipping a lot of speakers, and voila, the Echo was born. But only a few generations ago, creativity, luck and the ability to improvise played a greater role.
That's a big part of the appeal of "The Toys That Made Us," a new Netflix series which looks back at the creation and design of classic toy lines, and the fans who have kept them alive. Individual hour-long documentaries focus on Star Wars toys, Barbie dolls, He-Man and finally, real American hero G.I. Joe. (The opening credits promise that it's actually an eight-part series, but only four have thus far been released.)
Each episode provides a surprisingly thorough account of its signature brand, from the genesis of the concept and its development by the toy companies' creative teams, through the toys' marketing and release, and, in most cases, eventual slide into irrelevance. Considering the ages of a lot of these products, the show's done a staggering job at re-assembling the primary teams responsible for their creation. You wouldn't think it was possible to get all five people who played a part in bringing He-Man to life on camera, so each of them can take claim the lion's share of the credit for themselves, but here we are.
It doesn't hurt the show's entertainment factor that the toy industry tends to attract colorful characters, both behind-the-scenes and as enthusiasts. The "Star Wars" episode takes us to Rancho Obi-Wan, the massive collection of super-fan Steve Sansweet, but also introduces Kenner's legal team, who fought George Lucas hard on the merchandise rights back in '77. In an unbelievable segment from the "He-Man" episode, the men of Mattel behind the Masters of the Universe genuinely make the case that the introduction of She-Ra, Princess of Power, killed the line, feminizing the lead barbarian until he wasn't cool any more.
But more than anything else, what stands out about everyone's stories is how improvisational it all was. "Oh, yeah, kids won't know the backstory behind these characters," they realize while already in a sales meeting. "Let's make an animated series!" At one point, the President of Kenner is asked how big he thinks "Star Wars" figures should be, and he measures out a gap with his fingers that turns out to be 3.75". Based just on this gesture, a standard was set in the industry for decades.
Maybe we'll hear stories about 2018 in business, and it'll also come down to a whim here and a coincidence there. But the world just doesn't feel like that anymore. It's digital now, and everything's measured out. The world has become more precise.
Also of note: The show has dug up dozens of vintage commercials in each episode, which themselves function as a kind of nostalgia bomb for viewers in their 30s and up. I do think there's more to "The Toys That Made Us" than purely a fun trip down memory lane, but it certainly functions that way on one level, and does the job well.
Title: "The Toys That Made Us"
Where to Watch: Netflix
Episodes: 4 (1 season)
Running time: About 50 minutes each