Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 12, 2019)
A Netflix series, The Toys That Made Us allows viewers to revisit their childhoods – maybe. How much nostalgia these programs deliver will depend on one’s age.
This two-DVD set includes all eight episodes across the series’ first two seasons. Here’s what we examine:
Star Wars (50:51): “A small toy company in Cincinnati takes on its biggest licensing project ever, giving birth to the most profitable toy franchise in history.”
In this episode, we hear from Kenner Senior Product Designer Jim Swearingen, sociology professor John Tenuto, author Mark Bellomo, 20th Century Fox Former VP of Licensing Marc Pevers, former Kenner manager Corky Steiner, former Kenner VP of Preliminary Design Dave Okada, former Kenner sales executive Pete Kelly, former Kenner Senior VP of Business and Legal Affairs Jim Kipling, “Star Wars Collectors Archive” editor Ron Salvatore, toy designers David Vonner, Aaron Archer and Mark Boudreaux, “Rancho Obi-Wan” president Steve Sansweet, NECA Director of Product Development Randy Falk, former Hasbro CEO Alan Hassenfeld, former Kenner general manager Tom McGrath, “Star Wars Collectors Archive” creator Gus Lopez, Toy Insider editor in chief Jackie Breyer, and collector Josh Blake.
Barbie (44:00): “Inspired by a risqué doll from Germany, the co-founder of Mattel Toys forever revolutionized the doll industry for young girls.”
For “Barbie”, we find comments from Breyer, Forever Barbie author MG Lord, former Mattel Director of Preliminary Design Derek Gable, Matteel Senior VP and General Manager Lisa McKnight, former Mattel CEO Jill Barad, original Barbie designer’s daughter Ann Ryan, fashion designer Bob Mackie, toy expert Chris Byrne, former Barbie designers Kitty Black Perkins and Carol Spencer, former Mattel Senior VP of Girls Toys Judy Shackelford, Mattel Senior Design Director Robert Best, cultural expert Jess Weiner, Mattel Principal Designer Bill Greening, Mattel President/COO Richard Dickson, collector/auctioneer Sandi Holder, former Mattel Director of Worldwide Marketing Janice Varney-Hamlin, toy inventor Steve Fink, Mattel former Senior VP of Worldwide Marketing Paul Cleveland and former Mattel Worldwide President/COO Bruce Stein.
He-Man (45:57): “Creators responsible for reviving a toy company’s struggling action figure line discuss the epic rise and fall of their billion-dollar empire.”
Here we locate info from Shackelford, Gable, Cleveland, Bellomo, Vonner, Falk, Barad, Varney-Hamlin, former Mattel VP of Boys Toys Mark Ellis, former Mattel CEO Tom Kalinski, designer Roger Sweet, former Mattel artist/designer Mark Taylor, Mattel Director of Content Development Robert David, sculptor Eric Treadway, author James Eatock, Super 7’s Brian Flynn and Josh Herbolsheimer, Power and Honor Foundation’s Joshua Van Pelt, He-Man.org’s Josh Staples, Mattel former Director of Marketing Dave Capper and actor Dolph Lundgren.
GI Joe (45:02): “Credited with coining the phrase ‘action figure’ more than 50 years ago, a group of toy marketers reimagined a new genre of dolls for boys.”
The “Joe” show involves Byrne, Hassenfeld, Vonner, Archer, Bellomo, Falk, screenwriter Rhett Reese, former Hasbro VP of Boys Toys Kirk Bozigian, GI Joe developer’s son Steve Weston, Hasbro VP of Global Marketing Derryl DePriest, former Mego president Marty Abrams, former Hasbro Boys Toys R&D Manager Steve D’Aguanno, former Hasbro designers Dave Kunitz and Ron Rudat, former Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, comic writer Larry Hama, TV writer Flint Dille, and author/collector Dan Klingensmith.
Star Trek (43:08): “Plagued by years of brand mismanagement and product inconsistency, a popular space franchise must overcome its past in a crowded toy market.”
For this piece, we locate notes from Abrams, Vonner, Bellomo, Byrne, Pevers, Trek creator’s son Rod Roddenberry, special and visual effects artist Doug Drexler, collectors Karl Tate, Steven Kelley, John Tenuto, Maria Jose Tenuto and Russell Meyers, automotive designer Gene Winfield, Master Replicas co-founder Steve Dymszo, fans John and Bjo Trimble, 50 Years of “Star Trek” director Ian Roumain, former Galoob CEO David Galoob, sculptors Patrick Pigott and Steve Varner, Playmates Senior VP of Marketing Karl Aaronian, former Art Asylum Senior Art Director Manny Jesus, former Art Asylum Lead Designer Nelson Asencio, Diamond Select Toys’ Zach Oat, and McFarlane Toys’ Todd McFarlane.
Transformers (45:12): “Combining ingenious Japanese toys with a creative backstory written by Marvel Comics, Hasbro introduced a line that changed the toy landscape forever.”
Here we encounter statements from Vonner, Abrams, Archer, DePriest, Bozigian, D’Aguanno, Hassenfeld, Byrne, Shooter, Hama, Bellomo, Flynn, Herbolsheimer, Dille, McGrath, designers Hideaki Yoke, Shogo Hasui, Keiichiro Sakuma and Kohjin Ohno, collector Adam Middleton, Hasbro Design Manager John Warden, former Hasbro Marketing Director Alison Segebarth, comic writer Bob Budiansky, Seibertron.com’s Ryan Yzquierdo, and actor Peter Cullen.
Lego (43:51): “From humble beginnings in the Danish countryside, this maker of the interlocking plastic bricks has become the largest toy manufacturer in the world.”
For this show, we find material with Byrne, Flynn, Lego Friends Senior Design Manager Fenella Blaize Charity, Lego Culture mediators Tine Froberg Mortensen, Kristen Stadelhofer and Kristian Reimer Hauge, author David C. Robertson, Lego artist Adam Reed Tucker, L Gauge Museum’s Michael “Bruno” Todd, Lego Senior Designers Torben Kidde Skov and Bo Eggert, Lego Senior Director for Community Development Tormod Askildsen, Lego designer Toren Holm, and Lego Star Wars lead designer Jens Kronvold Frederiksen.
Hello Kitty (42:27): “With the motto ‘Small Gift, Big Smile’ as its business philosophy, Sanrio founder Shintaro Tsuji turned a ‘kawaii’ kitty into a global phenomenon.”
During the final episode, we locate notes from Byrne, fashion designer Kimora Lee Simmons, Sanrio Co. founder/president/CEO Shintaro Tsuji, former Sanrio North America Marketing Director Bill Hensley, Sanrio North America SVP Jill Koch, anthropologist Christine Yano, “Strawberry News” chief editor Hideki Takakuwa, Sanrio Far East President Andy Y. Toyama, head designer Yuko Yamaguchi, former Sanrio North America VP Randy Patterson, Japan LA Store owner Jamie Rivadeneira, former Sanrio North America SVP Bruce Guiliano, Sanrio North America VP Cathy Viscarra, business consultant Don Frazier, celebrity Paris Hilton, and former Sanrio North America Brand Visuals Manager Sarah Walsworth.
As I mentioned at the start, one viewer’s nostalgia will differ from another, and as a male in my early 50s, I can only connect to three of this package’s topics: Star Wars, Star Trek and Lego. All three acted as important toy-related aspects of my childhood, so I most looked forward to those episodes.
That doesn’t mean the other five left me without any curiosity, though, and I’m glad Made Us spreads it love to toys of different eras and genders. It would’ve been easy to focus only on toys that appealed to boys in the 1970s and 1980s, so even though much of the series lean that way, I’m glad it broadens its horizons.
Made Us goes with a glib, semi-irreverent style that could make it tiresome, as its reliance on comedy comes with the potential to grow annoying. Happily, the opposite occurs, as the presentation keeps us amused and entertained while it covers toy history.
Make no mistake: even with all the gags and wacky choices, Made Us ensures that we learn a lot about the toy lines under discussion. At about 45 minutes an episode, the shows lack the breathing room for great depth, but they still cover the subject matter in a largely satisfying manner.
That said, I feel perplexed that the Star Wars discussion ignores the product’s 1995 revival. That episode implies that the line lay dormant between the mid-1980s and the 1999 release of The Phantom Menace.
This doesn’t fit history, as the 1995 relaunch became an enormous success. Even without the prequels, the 1995-1998 toys were a big hit, and it’s a shame the show doesn’t mention this.
Also, with some of the franchises that go through various reinventions, not all get treated equally. For instance, the GI Joe episode favors the 1980s version and the original gets a bit of the short shrift.
Still, these complaints remain fairly petty, as Made Us offers a pretty delightful experience overall. Clever, funny and informative, the episodes offer consistent entertainment.