Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cancelled Action Figure Cavalcade: Star Wars Episode I

I'm stretching the definition of "action figure" in this installment of Cancelled Action Figure Cavalcade. With lower than expected sales on the early Star wars Episode I items, the toy companies had to scale back on their later offerings. Much of what Hasbro was planning for the action figure line was simply shuffled into the new Power of the Jedi line. Most of the stuff that was canceled outright, which you can see here at Rebelscum's highly useful photo archive, was stuff like two-packs, and the Trophy Assortment which packaged a Hasbro action figure with a Galoob Micro Machine.

Galoob's Star Wars themed Micro Machines ran concurrently with the Kenner/Hasbro action figures for much of the 90's. In fact I believe their first Star Wars Micro Machines predates the Kenner's launch of the Power of the Force line in 1995. So they might be the ones to get credit for the revival of Star Wars toys. Eventually Hasbro bought Galoob which gave them even greater control of the Star Wars license. Unfortunately Episode I became sort of a last hurrah for the Micro Machines. While Micro Machine-like products would still be made sporadically (currently with the Titanium line) it was never treated as a full distinct line again.

I used to have a lot of the Star Wars Micro Machines myself but I had already stopped buying them shortly before Episode I hit. I was in the midst of phasing out other toys and focusing entirely on action figures. My favorite product was the transforming head playsets. It was a bizzare concept that proved to be qreally cool. For Episode I playsets that transformed into the heads of Jar Jar, Darth Maul, and a Battle Droid were made. However there were at least three planned that were never released.

Anakin opens up to reveal the Boonta Eve Classic racing track. It's an obvious choice for the character but the space inside seems a bit too sparse for a proper podrace. Plus the playset only comes with one podracer. That's how they get you. The reflection in Anakin's goggles is a nice detail.

Obi-Wan Kenobi opens up into the Naboo swamp. Not a lot happens during the swamp sequence in the movie. The Jedi run from the Trade Federation's vehicles and meet Jar Jar. That's about it. This playset looks like it would have had a number of gimmicks though I'm can't say what any of them would be. The most interesting of the gimmicks are those goggles(?) that pop up in the background. I wonder what those would have been used for.

This prototype looks less finished than the others with a lot of it left unpainted. Qui-Gon's head opens up to a recreation of the the first scene in the movie. It's got figurines of Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and a pair of Battle Droids for them to slice. There's even a little turret that lowers down to blow up the Jedi's ship. Is that legal? No Mr. Gunray, it's not.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Impact (or Lack Thereof) of Episode I

Everything about Star Wars Episode I was huge but nothing was bigger than the expectations people had for it. I'm not just talking about the fans either. A lot of manufacturers and retailers were betting big on the movie as well. This was somewhat understandable. There had been no greater licensing success than Star Wars, but that success happened over a span of twenty two years. It seemed to me like they were trying to match all of that in 1999 alone. The stores did go overboard. My local Target replaced their action figure aisle with an "all Star Wars Episode I" aisle. Even if the movie had been as well received as people thought it would be, it still wouldn't have sold as much merchandise as was expected.

I bought quite a number of the toys myself but it was all a drop in the bucket compared to what was available. Looking through some online archives I'm amazed at the sheer amount of stuff that was made. Check out this giant Fambaa creature. Apparently this was an FAO Schwartz exclusive. Until recently I had no idea it even existed.

Since sales didn't meet expectations the promotions for the future prequels were scaled way back by comparison. Don't get me wrong there were still a ton of toys. There just weren't as many "out there" concepts like there were for Episode I. So there were no more baggies of swamp creatures, Queen Amidala fashion dolls, or statuettes that you paint yourself. There especially wasn't going to be any more edible Gungan tongues and multiple incarnations of Podracers. Lucasfilm and their partners were playing it more cautious than before.

We didn't even get a proper Attack of the Clones action figure line. Instead there was a catch all Star Wars Saga line that was only mostly focused on AOTC characters. Plus both it and the Revenge of the Sith toyline would feature lower prices and less high tech action features than Episode I. (Goodbye CommTech chips.) And while ROTS did usher in the return of fast food and candy tie-ins, it was still no match for the onslaught of The Phantom Menace. I don't think anything will ever come close to that again.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Advent of the CommTech Chips

For me Star Wars is virtually inseparable from the 3.75" action figures that were first released in 1978 and has continued in some form to this day, with a ten year hiatus from 1985 to 1995. I wasn't around for the earlier stuff but I've been collecting them on and off since '95. For the first few years I only picked up a few here and there. I remember my first two being Darth Vader and R2-D2. Star Wars figures really caught on with me me in 1997 when the theatrical re-releases happened around the same time as my birthday resulting in a prefect storm of young geekdom. My interest cooled down a bit the following year but it was just in preparation for the coming onslaught of 1999.

Hasbro got the Episode I excitement started early with an assortment of figures that come with "Flashback Photos" that try to relate a classic character to an Episode I character. Frankly they weren't that interesting but the figures that they acme with were nice. In the few short years since the modern line had started they were already improving quite a bit. Hasbro was preparing something even more innovative for their Episode I line.

Obviously I was expecting a big push for the Episode I toyline and was excited for it. Back then I didn't know anything about new toys until I saw them in a store. One night though I saw a report on the TV news about the Episode I toys and how toy stores would start selling them at midnight. While I was understood I probably wouldn't get a chance to go I still bugged my mom to take me to Toys R Us after school the next day. She obliged but by then it was too late. The store had already sold out of most of the more interesting items. The only basic figures they had were the Ric Olie, Senator Palpatine and Chancellor Vallorum. These boring old men figures would continue to not sell through out the line's existence.

I did go home that day with a deluxe Obi-Wan Kenobi with a lightsaber slashing gimmick. I would have preferred a basic version primarily because it would be in a neutral pose. It wouldn't have been much cheaper though and it would have even had its own gimmick. For Episode I the basic figures came with CommTech chips which allowed the figures to talk. When a character's CommTech chip was scanned with a CommTech Reader (sold separately) the Reader would play lines from the movie. These chips could also be used as stands for the figures or even be worn like dog tags.

I can see why they thought the CommTech chips were a clever idea. Star Wars fans all have their favorite lines and love quoting the movies. The problem is part of the fun of Star Wars action figures is all the obscure background characters that only have a few seconds of screen time. These characters don't have much, if any, dialogue. Some CommTech chips featured lines that Hasbro just made up. It also didn't help that Episode I didn't have the same impact of the original movies. Of course I cite the movie constantly but usually I do it ironically.

While the idea was flawed the execution left something to be desired too. The problem was that the voices just didn't sound that good. The audio quality wasn't great but worse was that they didn't use the actors' real voices. I'd say they used soundalikes but they didn't much sound like the actual actors either. The Battle Droid even sounded more human than droid. Maybe that's why Hasbro made toys of those boring old men like the Chancellor. Those characters typically have more lines than the more visually interesting aliens.

Hasbro had a lot riding on the CommTech chips. There were even CommTech Readers on display in stores that anyone could try. More on the fallout of the Episode I toyline next time.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Omnipresent Episode I

Here's what the true power of Star Wars Episode I was; it made being dragged to places you didn't want to go by your parents a little more tolerable. It didn't matter how much time your mother spent picking up outfits for your baby sister because there was a banner of Anakin in a podracing helmet hanging from the store's ceiling.

For several weeks Episode I's presence was felt everywhere you went. It was like living in 1984 except with the visage of Queen Amidala in place of Big Brother. You could experience Star Wars just by eating a bag of Lay's potato chips and drinking a can of Pepsi. I went to Knott's Berry Farm in my Darth Maul t-shirt and was almost left behind by my group after lingering too long looking at Episode I merchandise at the gift shop next to the dinosaur ride.

I suppose it really wasn't very different from any other promotional campaign except in my own head. You couldn't deny that a new Star Wars film was a big deal though. The Taco Bell chihuahua doesn't team up with Colonel Sanders every day.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Every Marketing Campaign Has A First Step

Let's continue our unofficial Star Wars Episode I week with a look back at the trailer which gave us our very first look at the fist new Star Wars move in sixteen years. While my views on the movie itself has muddled, this remains one of my favorite movie trailers to this day.

You can see where I got some of my false presumptions from. This trailer puts all the focus on Anakin. It even gives the illusion that Darth Maul's mission is to hunt down the boy, rather than Queen Amidala. The second trailer, which you can see here, is much more indicative of the plot, and perhaps a little less exciting.

There was news reports of people buying tickets to, if I recall correctly, Meet Joe Black and leaving right after the Episode I trailer played. I didn't do that of course. I first saw the trailer on regular television one day when it unexpectedly aired during Fox Kids' weekday afternoon lineup. Needless to say that was a fantastic surprise. I saw it again that same night during the local news.

I even recall reading a shot by shot breakdown of the trailer in the entertainment section of the newspaper. In those days I actually used to get quite a bit of geek oriented news from the paper. And we had to walk fifteen miles in the snow to buy that paper. Of course I wore an onion tied to my belt, as was the style at the time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Remembering Star Wars Episode I

Yesterday may have been the tenth anniversary of the release of Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace but today is the tenth anniversary of the day I first saw it. My entire life had been building up to that point. I had already decided that this would be my new favorite film before I had even seen it. After all how could it not be? The original trilogy were and still are my favorite films (on a side note which specific movie in the trilogy that I consider my most favorite has kept changing as I've aged) and this was going to be the first Star Wars movie to premiere within my lifetime. I would get to experience it all first hand. This was going to be my Star Wars.

So did Episode I become my favorite movie? It isn't now but at the time, I wasn't really sure. I'd say I enjoyed it for the most part, but much of the movie went over my head the first time I saw it. I didn't really grasp what was going on with the Trade Federation's blockade on Naboo. The intricate plotting of the prequel trilogy may be more sophisticated than that of the classic trilogy, but that makes it harder to win over children and indeed mainstream viewers in general. Still anything with three way lightsaber duels and pod-races is going to find an audience even if they are left confused at times.

Speaking of confusion let's talk about Jar Jar. The first time I saw the movie I couldn't understand almost anything he said. It was more frustrating to me than annoying. So a lot of the anti-Jar Jar backlash was lost on me. I get it now though. Yet I can't say I hate the character. If I have to single out one aspect about the movie that I dislike the most it would have to be Jake Lloyd. The kid's acting is awful but that wasn't something I was taking into consideration ten years ago. When I was a kid I couldn't discern acting ability.

When I was first watched Episode I it genuinely surprised me. I wasn't expecting Qui-Gon and Darth Maul to be killed off. I mean I knew they had to die eventually but I assumed they would stick around for longer than one movie. I didn't know Padme was Queen Amidala. I probably should have but I didn't. I had no idea as to what was going to happen. I may have had unattainably high expectations, but other than that I went into it knowing relatively little. Plus I had made false presumptions based on what I did know. I like that. I need to reduce my internet usage back down to 1999 levels so I can experience something like that again.

If I have to name Episode I's biggest strength it would be that it has a specific charm. A lot of that has to do with the designs costumes, sets, and vehicles. Naboo especially has a distinct look from their ships to the Queen's gowns and the cities of Theed and Otoh Gunga. I also think Episode I feels the most like the old sci-fi serials that originally inspired George Lucas. It doesn't feel like the other Star Wars movies. It doesn't have many recognizable elements. In that sense it did become my Star Wars for awhile.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ten Years Ago Today

It's been a decade. Wow.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Work In Progress

This year is Mobile Suit Gundam's 30th Anniversary. Japan has found the best way to celebrate.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I Want To Go To There

Funimation reports that there will be a Fruits Basket themed event this Saturday at the Macy's store in Herald Square in New York City. This Macy's is the largest department store in the world, as well as the most famous having been featured in Miracle at 34th Street and so many Thanksgiving Day parades. It's a surprising location for this event.

Here are the details:

"On Saturday, May 16th at 2pm in Kids on 7, meet your favorite Fruits Basket characters, enter our costume contest dressed as your favorite character, and have your photo taken with Tohru and friends. With any kids purchase of $75 or more, receive a Fruits Basket DVD and book series!"

No clue on what exactly the free "DVD and book series" entails. Fruits Basket is the most popular shojo series in North America. Tokyopop will release the twenty-third and final volume of the manga this July 14th.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Who Will Save Us Now

Watchmen is tentatively set to be released on DVD and Blu-Ray this July. Potential cover artwork has shown up online. The Rorschach character poster is used fairly prominently. The artwork wasn't what I was expecting but I don't dislike it. Okay the tagline is really stupid.

The full screen DVD version is almost identical. Check out the fireball coming out of Rorschach's rear end. Dude needs to lay off those beans.

The two-disc DVD edition uses the same artwork. Beware of the Digital Copy banner. I'm really looking forward to seeing the director's cut.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

An Illustrious Debut

A new trailer for Evangelion: 2.0 You Can [Not] Advance has debuted online. To see it click here. It will open in your default video player. It seems this movie will cover the series at least up to the incident with Eva Unit 04. I'm surprised it will go that far into the story. That's a lot of territory to cover in a single movie. I expect some alterations to the story will end up being made to compensate.

We also see more of the newest character. We've already seen the unusual looking Eva Unit she'll be piloting. She has an unusual looking plug suit to match. Looks like her color will be green. Even her name is unusual. She's called Mari Illustrious Makinami. "Illustrious" might be the best middle name ever, except maybe for "Danger". I like her pigtail and glasses look. It sets her apart from Rei and Asuka. To top it off she'll be voiced by one of my favorite seiyuu, Maaya Sakamoto. Maaya Sakamoto and Megumi Hayashibara are voicing characters in the same movie? Awesome. Granted they did already do this before in a single episode of Cowboy Bebop.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

High Expectations For Shellhead

Warner Bros. has pushed back the release of the Green Lantern movie from 2010 to June 17th 2011. I guess I shouldn't be so shocked. There was never anything about punctuality in the Green Lantern oath. Still I'm disappointed. I was hoping it would be out sooner than that.

So now Green Lantern will debut in the same summer as Spider-Man 4, Thor and The First Avenger: Captain America. For three months we'll be drowning in what could be total geek nirvana. Of course it could turn out to be too much all at once. There's only so much geek dollars to go around. I think it might be for the best if one of those films was delayed until at least the end of the year, though they would then be competing with The Hobbit.

2011 is still quite some time away though. I'm more concerned about next year's release schedule. It's looking pretty bleak right now. Sure I'm looking forward to Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland and TR2N could be good. I must say though that for the most part 2010 is shaping up to be all about Tony Stark.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Kirk And The King

Burger King has kicked off their Star Trek promotion. Clearly I'm already hooked.

Burger King, already known for their memorable advertising, have really outdone themselves this time. They've introduced the Kingons, which as you can probably figure out, are a cross between their infamous mascot and the race of Star Trek aliens. Honestly just the idea that there are other "Kings", particularly a female one, is more disturbing than them being King/ Klingon hybrids.

Star Trek actually holds a special distinction in fast food history. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was the first movie to be promoted as a Happy Meal. It's also interesting that McDonald's built their campaign around the Klingons just as Burger King would do thirty years later.

It's funny to me that something that has been seen as insular as Star Trek really was mainstream enough to have had a number of fast food restaurant tie-ins. There were collector glasses available at Taco Bell for Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. I find the idea of a bubbly Taco Bell employee mentioning the Vulcan ritual of Fal-tor-pan in a TV spot terribly amusing.

In 1994 Jack In The Box did a promotion for Star Trek Generations that also featured collector's cups, this time of the more common plastic variety. Their kids' meals included Star Trek themed versions of those mid-nineties staples, temporary tattoos and pogs. I do remember when Generations was released but I don't have any memory of this Jack in the Box promotion. During that time period I would have taken any and all pogs that I could get my hands on.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Hauls Along The Watchtower

Got some great hauls last month. Venom, Barda, the second Gurren Lagann set, Ghost in the Shell Innocence and The Black Freighter.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Rise of the Trailers

You can watch the Transformers Revenge of the Fallen trailer by clicking here. Apparently Yahoo Movies doesn't allow embedding.

Of the two I like the Rise of Cobra trailer more. My biggest concern about the movie is that the tone will be too jokey, like Stephen Sommers' other movies, and the trailer didn't feed into that. It also helps that I knew relatively little about the movie beforehand. By comparison I already know way too much about Revenge of the Fallen. One of the things I wasn't sure about was the movie's basic conflict and I'm disappointed to see that it's "Megatron is chasing after Sam Witwicky" once again.