We walk through the history of toys, cards and games that leaped from the toy chest to the silver screen
Since Star Wars really set the stage for it in 1977, toys and collectibles have become an important part of the marketing and longevity of film. In most cases, the movie comes out and then the collectibles are created based on the characters and environments depicted in the film. In some special cases, the toys, figures and games have become so popular that the concepts behind them have lept onto the silver screen. Some of the best have become classics and we’re here to run down those standouts!
Toys 1984 – Films 1986, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014
Transformers has by far been the most successful translation of toys to film. Brought over from Japan by the American toy company Hasbro beginning in 1984, the story follows two groups of transforming automations from the planet Cybertron. There is the good and human aiding Autobots led by Optimus Prime and the evil Decepticons who are led by Megatron. These factions battle for world or supremacy, respectively. The toys were robots that could transform into a variety of vehicles, aircraft, weapons and other modern world objects. These toys initially spawned several decades of much loved animated series, a feature-length animated film and, starting in 2007, a full feature film franchise. Directed by Michael Bay, the four films in the current film series are known for their over-the-top action, huge and frequent explosions and frequent and occasionally crude and sometimes questionable humor. In the first three films, the Autobots are aided by young Sam Witwicky. In the last, a mechanic named Cade Yeager repairs the damaged Optimus Prime and becomes embroiled in the adventures of the Autobots. There are some significant changes in the films, for example, the Volkswagen Beetle Bumblebee from the toy and cartoon series is replaced by a Camero version and Megatron, who was a variety of guns and cannons would transform into a jet in the films. Walking from toys to animation to film and even back to animation and mountains of new toys, this franchise shows no signs of stopping anytime soon!
Toys 1964 – Films 1987, 2009, 2013
One of the oldest toys to inspire a feature film, the G.I. Joe (or GI Joe) toys were the first to be released under the name “action figure”. The original 12 inch dolls were designed for each of the four (at that time) branches of the military. The 3.5 inch “Real American Hero” figures saw dozens of Joes, each with their own personality, distinctive look and specialty in battle. It is on these Hasbro G.I. Joe figures that two animated series, the animated film G.I. Joe: The Movie, and the two latest films (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and G.I. Joe Retaliation) are based. The first film saw two soldiers drawn into the fight between the Joes and their perennial enemy COBRA following the theft of nuclear warheads and no less than the President of the United States being replaced. The second film showed us the ranks of the Joes decimated with only a handful left to rescue the real President and then save the world from destruction by orbital super weapons. A proposed third film has been in the works for the last couple of years and would see the return of Dwayne Johnson’s Roadblock and Ray Park’s Snake Eyes along with the COBRA fan favorite villain The Baroness but that film though is still in developmental limbo.
Toy 1949 – Film 2014
The Danish created LEGO blocks began as a simple set of building blocks that went through many evolutions to become the interlocking blocks with a massive fan following we recognize today. LEGO were called “Automatic Binding Blocks” in their initial incarnation and left the designs and building to the children. After a few years, the LEGO Corporation began to make a number of themed sets including pirates, cowboys, space explorers, dinosaurs, vikings, full cities and more. In more recent years, a variety of licenced sets were created for properties like Batman, Star Wars and Indiana Jones, to name just a few. It is on the backbone of these sets that The LEGO Movie was built. Every man construction worker Emmet becomes involved in the pursuit for the Piece of Resistance and battles Lord Business before the film is done. Along his journey he encounters wizards, spacemen, cyborg pirates and no less than Batman himself. Emmet’s quest is to become a “master builder” proves to be a fun, zany little story that hits on all the parts of play that make building with LEGO awesome.
Masters of the Universe (He-Man)
Toy 1981 – Film 1987
After Mattel passed on the ultimately incredibly lucrative Star Wars line of toys prior to the film’s release, the company began looking for a franchise to develop in the hope of creating a new, successful toy line. They found it with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The toy world presented the story of Prince Adam of Eternia and his magically powered alter ego He-Man who, along with his allies, defends their world against the evil Skeletor and his minions. Following a wildly successful animated series, the live action 1987 film follows this same basic idea as Skeletor seeks to steal the powers of the Sorceress, who empowers He-Man and protects Eternia. He-Man and his allies, overwhelmed by Skeletor’s forces, inadvertently flee to Earth where they befriend two teenagers. The battles with Skeletor ranges from Earth to Eternia before the kids are ultimately returned home. Despite starring popular action actor Dolph Lundgren and a young Courtney Cox, the film failed to make back its money. That said, where the film failed, the cartoon remained live and well in spin-offs and reboots for years to come with toys remaining popular even to this day.
Game 1967 – Film 2012
Battleship began as a pencil and paper game as early as World War II and various companies created pre-printed booklets allowing it to be played over those years. It was Milton Bradley who created the classic plastic board and peg game in 1967. In the game, each person places plastic ships on one side of the gridded number and letter board and each person must guess where their opponent’s ships are placed by picking a number and letter position from the board. A correct guess is a “hit” to their opponent’s ship and, depending on the size, a certain number of hits sinks their ships. Once all the ships on one side are sunk, the opposite person wins. Electronic and talking versions were eventually introduced but they never reached the sales numbers of the classic game. The 2012 film has no real similarities to the game other than its name and some of the marketing. Here, an alien invasion story does its best to live up to the title. In the story an old decommissioned battleship, the USS Missouri, is brought out of mothball status by a rag-tag group of modern and former Naval officers, led by an unruly and unconventional young officer, to defeat the alien armada who have already destroyed far superior ships. Despite the unusual premise, the film was a modest success. Unsurprisingly, Hasbro, the game’s current owners, released several new versions of Battleship, including a Navy versus aliens version. There has even been a Star Wars version!
Game 1944 (England) / 1949 (United States) – Film 1985
Cluedo, or Clue as it came to be known in the United States, is a game where players assume the identity of one of six suspects in a murder mystery. Players have to decide who committed the murder, which room the murder was committed in and which weapon was used. Colored pieces are moved around the board based on dice rolls, notes can be taken on Detective Pads and Solution Cards ultimately reveal the murderer. There have been many re-releases of the game over the years with children’s versions, travel versions and even pop-culture versions including ones based on The Simpsons, Family Guy, Scooby-Doo, The Office and Supernatural to name just a few. If Battleship had also nothing to do with its game, the Clue film was absolutely slavish in its dedication to the original game. The 1985 film followed the basics of the game perfectly, even to the point of giving the audience three different endings with different murderers killing Mr. Boddy. The film had several high level comedy actors of the time, including Tim Curry, Martin Mull and Madeline Kahn. It interjected a great deal of slapstick comedy in-between the killings. Although the film didn’t do well in its initial release, it has since become a cult favorite and a DVD hit.
Dungeons & Dragons
Game/Books: 1974 – Film: 2000
Dungeon & Dragons, or D&D, is a unique form of fantasy play as it allows people to create a character with specific abilities, attributes and a personality based on levels of good or evil which they guide and play on an ongoing basis. One person, the “Dungeon Master” creates a quest where the players fight, gather weapons and treasure and try to achieve certain goals advancing the overall narrative of the campaign. Success and damage are determined by the roll of a variety of different polyhedron dice, ranging from 4 to 20 sided dice. A Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual are core parts of the game and, while they are not required, many players enjoy having miniature, hand-painted representations of their characters and monsters rolled into the mix of play. The Dungeons & Dragons movie isn’t specifically about the game itself, but it does take place in a fantasy world where two sorceresses battle over a dragon controlling spectre and thieves, elves and dragons become embroiled in their battles. The theatrical film did not do well but a television movie and a direct to DVD movie using the Dungeons and Dragons name have been created along with a fondly remembered 80s cartoon.
Cards: 1962 – Film: 1996
The Mars Attacks card series was released in 1962 and were inspired by the work of fantasy and comic book artist Wally Wood. The cards were known for their gore and sexual suggestiveness. This fact resulted in them being very popular with kid collectors and equally unpopular with parents and politicians. Learn all about it in this past CompleteSet Story summing up the interesting history of these cards. Unbeknownst to many though, the card set did have a distinctive story. Here, the corrupt Martian government conceal from the general populace the fact that Mars is on the verge of destruction. Instead, they send a cruel advance force to colonize the Earth. They attack several nations, torturing and slaughtering humans and many battles are shown in the card series. A volunteer force of humans eventually travels to Mars to fight them there. They are so successful that the Martian force returns to Mars and the whole planet is destroyed by a well placed nuclear weapons. In the star-studded film, called Mars Attacks!, the Martians come to Earth with the intent of colonizing the planet. They claim to come in peace but immediately start killing people and there the fun ensues. The Martians are invited to Congress to negotiate peace but open fire. The President, played hilariously by Jack Nicholson, is killed by the Martians when they decimate The White House and, after an unsuccessful nuclear attack on the mothership, the Martians begin to destroy national monuments simply for their own amusement. Ultimately, it would be the sound of Slim Whiman’s “Indian Love Call” that turns the tide, kills the aliens and ultimately results in victory for the human race. The film wasn’t well received at the time but did spawn a new set of cards and a continued the cult following of the franchise introducing a new generation to the card series.
Ultimately, these are but a few of collectibles and games that have gone from the drawing board to the silver screen. Some other notable examples range from the cute (the American Girl Dolls series) to the horrific (Ouija/Witch Board) to the downright lovably disgusting (the Garbage Pail Kids). The two things that all of them have in common are inspiration and imagination. The inspiration coming from these seemingly very different and disparate items and the imagination to weave those influences into stories that entertain and excite the viewers. And in the best case, send those same viewers back to the original source material as collectors once again.