As a toddler of the 70s and a child of the 80s, I’m in the exact generational sweet spot for the original Star Wars toy line from Kenner. While I may have enjoyed other franchises better, there’s no doubt I was among the millions of kids who played the hell out of these small, barely-articulated action figures. These hunks of plastic made an impression, as now there’s a huge fan base eagerly awaiting #ForceFriday, a social media marketing event about the release of the new toys from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which doesn’t come out for another four months.
Outside of buying some franchise toys for my kids so we can share the love of our fandom, I’m not really in the toy buying business these days, but I still have an extreme fondness for the original Kenner line. Back in the 90s before you can just look up obscure video clips on YouTube, I bought a bootleg videotape just filled with old “Star Wars” toy commercials (I also bought the Star Wars Holiday Special, but that’s a story for another time). There’s even nostalgia of the packaging, as the ReAction company now sells Kenner-like figures of popular franchises like “Aliens,” “Back to the Future” and more. If you ever thought to yourself, “I really like those Star Wars toys, but I wish they made a figure of the Gimp from ‘Pulp Fiction,’” I’ve got good news for you.
The nostalgia business is not just angling into the toy market. Since anybody with a smartphone can shoot, edit and release their own videos, and there’s clearly a market for our childhood obsessions of the 70s and 80s, I’ve discovered a whole cottage industry of niche documentaries about VHS stores, pinball machines and graphic novels available on streaming. One of these is “Plastic Galaxy,” a 70-minute documentary about those original “Star Wars” toys.
Director Brian Stillman talks to some of the original Kenner employees who dreamed up a 3 and ¾ inch scale universe, as well as some heavy “Star Wars” collectors (Not heavy as in weight, but people who own original prototype figures like the fabled rocket-launching Boba Fett). The loose story told here is of Kenner, a small Cincinnati toy company that exploded after they secured the license to “Star Wars” a month before its original release in 1977. As the movie quickly became a phenomenon, Kenner was caught flatfooted by the demand for toys, so much so that during the Christmas season that year, they actually sold a just cardboard stand promising buyers actual figures later in the new year. Today those “Early Bird” cardboards are one of the most prized “Star Wars” collectables fetching hundreds of dollars.
Much of the documentary is focused on the minutiae of the “Star Wars” line, from how they marketed the commercials to show kids how to play with the toys, to some of the odder, obscure pieces of merchandise. There is a too-brief section on Kenner designers creating their own toys for an art exhibit. This is mostly the equivalent of spoon-fed sugar, pushing happy memory after happy memory to the point that when anything suggests a less-cheery thought (like the Kenner supervisor who missed two years of his kids’ lives because he was working nights and weekends at the height of "Star Wars" fever), dramatic music and editing kicks in, almost to let us know the bad times will be over momentarily and we’ll get back to playing with plastic.
This is a documentary with limited appeal if you have little interest in the franchise or its merchandise, but for those adults who remember playing with the toys as a kid, this might go down as easy as a bowl of Count Chocula.
“The compelling thing about these toys the fact that they can take you back to that time,” says one fan. “That’s the coolest thing about them.” Sounds about right.
"Plastic Galaxy" is available for rent or purchase on iTunes, DVD on Amazon or for free streaming for Amazon Prime members.