Since 1977, the popularity of the Star Wars films establishes a deep footprint on cultures around the world. The franchise reaches beyond theaters with the widely successful marketing of Star Wars merchandise. Action figures and toys generate tangible souvenirs from "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." Many children grow up playing with Star Wars action figures, creating individual memories that aggregate into a broader awareness. The impact of Star Wars action figures has a subtle yet apparent effect. In turn, this effect is shown on film, looping from film to real life and back onto film.
Star Wars action figures and merchandise have a storied history of appearances on film and television. These appearances range from child's plaything to adult obsession. On film, they are symbols of a youthful, innocent creativity that children effortlessly manifest and adults attempt to recapture. As Star Wars loses and gains acclaim with successive generations, Star Wars merchandise in a film reflects the growth of technological fantasy lifestyles (colloquially known as "geek culture"). A Star Wars toy appearing on film is a snapshot of a society, capturing an inanimate cameo as a historically significant cultural artifact. These artifacts chart the popularity of Star Wars as well as the power of childhood memories.
On the surface and most commonly, the appearance of Star Wars toys in film and television are product placement, a loaded term by modern standards. However, the outcome of these merchandizing manifestations is determined by the viewer. The association of Star Wars toys on film is the result of a cultural engine feeding itself.
In 1978, American broadcaster CBS airs the two hour television program The Star Wars Holiday Special. Star Wars fans joke that the television special is the only Star Wars "mistake" that creator George Lucas abhors (but still deigns to not recognize). The special itself follows a Wookiee family as they attempt to celebrate Life Day under restrictive Imperial Rule. Celebrating life day involves wearing red robes, holding fishbowls, and walking into the sun. This happy family is that of Chewbacca, a starring character from the original film. Between colorful yet trippy musical numbers, messages of family togetherness and commercialization are shown. Gifts are exchanged, Imperial officers shake down store owners, and Bea Arthur sings in a Mos Eisley Cantina. The program is a campy (some would say hilarious) attempt at Christmastime marketing using a beloved Star Wars setting.
Chewbacca's son Lumpy has a large collection of Star Wars toys meant to engender envy among young watchers. These toys are Star Wars toys by dint of being regular toys in the Star Wars Universe. Lumpy plays with an X-Wing toy painted bright orange. His room is littered with other items including a Bantha doll. For a poor family living on Kashyyyk, Lumpy has a large collection of blinking and beeping electronic gadgets. Unfortunately for a human child living in 1978, these toys are not (yet) available for purchase. The intention of their appearance alongside a furry child analogue is to create an interest in Star Wars merchandising. There are Star Wars action figures available, and a child can be like Lumpy for the right price.
At the time, toy maker Kenner holds the merchandising contract with Lucasfilm. In 1977, Kenner's slow production is overwhelmed by the surprise success of Star Wars. Christmas 1977 passes, and an opportunity for capitalization is missed. The notorious "empty box" campaign is attempted where Kenner tells parents to give their children rain checks for Star Wars toys. The following year, Lucasfilm and Kenner team up with CBS to generate interest in Star Wars once again. The result is The Star Wars Holiday Special.
Toy commercials inundate the show. Depending on the region in the United States and Canada, an advertisement for Kenner Star Wars toys aired as frequently as once per commercial break. In a commercial of the era, Anthony Daniels reprises his role as C-3PO and promotes toys ranging from action figures to remote control R2-D2s. During the program, a cartoon short is shown starring the heroes of Star Wars. Plus, it features a new character: Boba Fett. This short coincides with the release of the Kenner Boba Fett action figure, and the design of Boba Fett in the cartoon is patterned on the toy. The Empire Strikes Back is nearly two years away, and Boba Fett exists in the minds of children as a cartoon character and toy. Thus, the short can reasonably be called an advertisement.
Star Wars toys on film start as a push for sales, but their presence on screens soon turns to childhood innocence and reclamation by fans.
In 1982, Steven Spielberg releases two films that heavily spotlight Star Wars merchandise: E.T. The Extraterrestrial and Poltergeist (he directs the former and produces the latter). Spielberg is a friend of George Lucas, and a simple analysis would focus on the prevalent product placement. Yet, there is another apparent aspect to the best buddies toy showcase. The appearance of Star Wars toys in these two films symbolizes childhood imagination. Elliott in E.T. and Robbie in Poltergeist are a representative sample of suburban, Caucasian children living in the early 1980s. By 1982, Star Wars is a runaway success with two films and a third arriving a year later. A child at the time would legitimately have an affinity for Star Wars and Star Wars toys. The films emulate childhood behavior with a degree of accuracy.
In E.T., a young boy named Elliott finds a lost extraterrestrial in the forest. Elliott has few friends but quickly charms and is charmed by the big headed alien. Elliott takes the alien to his room to show the visitor from Outer Space how a typical child on Earth lives. On his tour, Elliott demonstrates his collection of Star Wars action figures to the alien. He shows his favorite aliens from the Star Wars franchise. By his accounting he has Greedo, Hammerhead (Momaw Nadon), Walrus Man (Ponda Baba), Snaggletooth (Zutton), Lando Calrissian, and the necessary Boba Fett. Elliott shows that they can have "wars" and simulates a fight. The alien is intrigued by a human child's insistence that space civilization is violent and that plastic men can come alive.
Elliott's toys are symbolic of imagination. He demonstrates to his alien guest that humans have the capacity for creative thought (similar to the disco boogie at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The scene is a cultural artifact because it is a representative sampling shown to a visitor, E.T. in the film and audiences from the future. The Star Wars toys are mostly alien figures, emphasizing that they too are visitors from the world of Star Wars. The action figures are talismans from a fun Universe that is very much a reality to a child.
If Elliott enjoys Star Wars for its ability to transport a child to another world, Robbie from Poltergeist takes the pursuit to an extreme end. In Poltergeist, Robbie is part of a relatively well-off family, and his room is adorned with Star Wars merchandise. Shots of the room almost serve as a moving catalogue. Robbie has action figures, lamps, Han Solo's DL-44 blaster, and even a creepy Darth Vader action figure storage case with glowing red eyes. Similar to Lumpy, the scene can spark envy and desire in a young watcher. Robbie is wealthy in that he has a wealth of Star Wars toys, which today would be worth a sizable sum.
In the context of the film, Robbie chooses to surround himself with the trappings of an imaginary world. His room is his sanctuary, and he transforms it into a representation of a Star Wars World. The toys are relics of imagination that are meant to aid him in fully realizing his escape into Star Wars. Robbie physically lives in Star Wars within his bedroom. The toys exist in reality but are paired with parts of his mind. He projects his imagination on the walls of his room. The innocence and imagination symbolized by the room are shattered once haunting activity reaches its climax. The noisy, swirling haunting shatters the physical location of his room and his childhood innocence.
Spielberg is one of the first filmmakers to depict the saplings of a "geek lifestyle" in children. The children, and Spielberg through their characters' inception, transform the marketing of Star Wars into new cultural symbols.
Following the release of Return of the Jedi, two live action Ewok television specials, a Droids animated show, an Ewoks animated show, and a Disney Resorts attraction, Star Wars' popularity temporarily dips. In the early 1990s, there are no new, heavily promoted Star Wars properties to lift interest in the franchise. Star Wars is briefly trapped in the land of home video cassettes. For the moment, Star Wars toys are heirlooms.
In 1995, Star Wars toys make an interesting appearance in the children's film adaptation of the children's book The Indian in the Cupboard. Intriguingly, the film is directed by Yoda (meaning Miss Piggy, meaning Cookie Monster, meaning Fozzy Bear, meaning Frank Oz). The plot of the film revolves around a young boy named Omri and his discovery of a magic hutch that brings toys to life. In one scene, Omri tests the magic closet by placing a series of action figures on its shelves and locking the door. He puts toys of a Jurassic Park Tyrannosaurus Rex, RoboCop, a Ferengi, a Cardassian, and Darth Vader inside the cupboard. The toys come to life and begin to fight. Darth Vader takes on the dinosaur with his lightsaber. This fight is E.T.'s Elliott's imagination, and many other children's imaginations, come real.
The year that The Indian in the Cupboard is released, Kenner, now under Hasbro Toys' ownership, begins producing a new line of Star Wars action figures. These action figures are marketed under the Power of the Force brand name. They are new designs of old characters. They are also intended to imbue an interest in Star Wars among a new generation of children. Some children's first exposure to Star Wars is through the toys. The toys and toy cameos test whether audiences are receptive to new Star Wars films. This test leads to the 1996 Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire Multimedia Project (and associated toys), Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition theatrical release (and associated toys), and the Prequel Trilogy (and associated toys). One could inaccurately thank The Indian and the Cupboard author Lynne Reid Banks for Jar Jar Binks -- inaccurately because the film is a box office failure.
Nevertheless, the appearance of a Darth Vader toy in a cupboard with other contemporary toys sends a veiled message to children: Darth Vader is as awesome as Jurassic Park, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and RoboCop. To the adult audience member, the scene acts as a signal to share Star Wars with their children. The children of the early 1980s are grown up with their own children by 1995. Parents can share their memories and imagination with their children through Star Wars toys and films. The Indian in the Cupboard is a cultural precursor indication to do so.
The film represents a shift in Star Wars toys on film. Marketing efforts wish to hold the imaginations of the young, but the aging fans maintain a different line through Star Wars toys and their memories.
In the season six episode of The Simpsons titled "Lisa's Rival," episode writer Mike Scully explores the mind of an adult Star Wars fan. The precociously intelligent Lisa Simpson runs afoul of Allison Taylor, a younger, smarter girl at school. Their competition reaches its apex at a diorama competition. Principal Skinner judges the competition but does not award first prize to either Lisa's or Allison's diorama. Instead, he uncovers boy oaf Ralph Wiggum's diorama to discover a collection of mint in box Kenner Star Wars action figures. Ralph asks, "What's a diorama?" Principal Skinner is awestruck and exclaims, "Why it's Luke, and Obi-Wan, and my favorite, Chewie! They're all here!" He then declares Ralph the winner based on the weight of youthful memories and an impending lunchtime.
The action figures appearing in a collectible state indicates a crucial fact about Principal Skinner and adult toy collectors at large. The toys are in factory condition, denoting that they have never received any level of play. The collector as shown in Principal Skinner (and another Simpsons character named Comic Book Guy) desires to preserve the memories of their youth. The toys themselves represent the memories, and the packaging encapsulates them. They do not wish their memories damaged, and the toys take on a different purpose. They are reminders of a once powerful imagination replaced by a fear of age. Principal Skinner would probably be horrified to learn that Ralph "bent his Wookiee."
Similar to Principal Skinner is the character of Mark from the 1999 film Free Enterprise. In Free Enterprise, Mark and his friends are undergoing a crisis as their youthful adherence to pro-Star Trek,anti-Star Wars, and ambivalence towards other science-fiction begins to impact their life. Mark and friends are also collectors. They collect action figures and toys for the purpose of preservation and display. In one scene, Mark travels to a store to purchase themed memorabilia. He inspects the latest crop of pre-Prequel Star Wars merchandise. He grumbles about the effects of the Shadows of the Empire Multimedia Project, decrying a Prince "Zeezor." A child gets into an argument with Mark over the pronunciation of Xizor and into a Star Trek versus Star Wars debate.
Mark tries to scold the child about the history of science-fiction and shows a cultural gulf between older and younger "nerds" through toys. To the older collector, like Mark, the change in stock from one type of toy to another is a betrayal of his memories that he wishes to preserve behind glass cases. The child as an individual more given to imaginative play is willing to accept new components to the Star Wars mythos and the world of science-fiction (including the Men in Black movie). To the child, the new additions to the Star Wars Universe and science-fiction in general are new parts of the playground on which to play and new toys to enjoy.
Both The Simpsons and Free Enterprise mock adult collectors in their analysis, expressing an undesirability of the "geek lifestyle." A decade later, film and television shift their position on the acceptability and promotion of the "geek lifestyle" and the necessity of Star Wars and geek merchandise.
In the early 21st Century, "geek culture" becomes prevalent as a technological society burgeons. Information savvy "nerds" are a crucial part of this society, and these "nerds" are more likely to be Star Wars and Star Wars merchandise fans. Films and television shows begin to show this change in respect for the "geek lifestyle." Films celebrate fandom, and "nerdlish" television characters casually have Star Wars toys as background noise, week-by-week. The geek has come into their own in popular media, and Star Wars merchandise are their trappings.
The long in production film Fanboys is a direct affirmation of the Star Wars fanatic (some would say patronizing, some would say accurate). The plot tells the tale of a group of friends who desire to steal a print of Star Wars Episode I before it is released on May 19, 1999. Star Wars memorabilia plays a prominent role in the film due to its broad use. The friends own a comic shop, they duel with plastic lightsabers, they drive around in a Star Wars themed van, they plaster Star Wars posters everywhere, and they wear Star Wars clothes. To this group of friends, the imagination of Star Wars never leaves them. Star Wars is as real as they can imagine it to be, and this reality conflicts with their everyday lives. In a telling scene, the friends break into a vault at Skywalker Ranch. Stored in the Ranch vault are a variety of Star Wars props and toys. They are preserved as only a collector would preserve them. The friends and their imaginations immediately start playing with the props. Star Wars is alive to them as opposed to collectors like Principal Skinner or Mark.
The 2011 science-fiction film Paul also celebrates Star Wars fans and their toys. Friends Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings travel from England to San Diego to visit Comic-Con. They also plan to visit famous extraterrestrial landmarks in the United States. While in San Diego, they experience Comic-Con, buying merchandise and absorbing the atmosphere. Back in their hotel room, Graeme and Clive have their spoils covering every flat surface of the room. Star Wars figurines stand on dressers and nightstands. When a room service attendant arrives, he is confused by the Star Wars merchandise. He reacts as if he has stumbled into a room littered with sexual aids. Graeme and Clive attempt to explain their lifestyle but abandon the attempt. The room service attendant is respectful of their attachment to the creativity of Star Wars toys.
On television, the prominence of Star Wars toys is more apparent. The large volume of content produced for a season of a television series features aspects of nerdy characters much more frequently. In a series, Star Wars toys serve as props and set dressing, intermittently being addressed as present. They act as instantaneous visual reminders of what a character is thinking or feeling. The associated memories of Star Wars merchandise resonate with audiences on different levels.
The television show Chuck stars a goofy nerd named Chuck Bartowski. His lifestyle is shown bare in his child-like room, as in E.T. and Poltergeist. Star Wars memorabilia rests beside other nerdy items, including a rather prominent TRON poster. The toys represent his playful, creative side that time and again saves him and his team at his job as a walking computer for the United States government. The imagination inherent in play is inherent in "geekly" endeavors. The show celebrates this belief with low-toned reminders in set design of where Chuck gets his creativity.
Similarly but dissimilarly is the television show The Big Bang Theory. The show resembles a Jane Goodall chimpanzee sociology study. The perspective of the show is from outside "geek culture" looking into it. Like observing chimps, some parts of "geek culture" are accurate while other are overbearing. The characters of Big Bang Theory are Star Wars fans as evidenced by their dialogue and possessions. Characters own a variety of Star Wars toys ranging from light-up lightsabers to a Darth Vader voice deepener to a Mattel Millennium Falcon. The show focuses on a group of friends, including a pair of genius physicists, and their interactions. If the show is what mass media believes "geek culture" resembles, it is a depiction of admirable if socially awkward traits reflected in Star Wars toys.
Star Wars toys arrive at ubiquity at the start of the 21st Century. Imagination and acceptance return to the "geek lifestyle" as Star Wars regains its popularity. Star Wars toys and merchandise are everywhere in popular entertainment.
Where most film and television shows capture an impression of the impact of Star Wars toys on "geek lives," few are the actual results themselves.
The most apparent of these show by geeks, celebrating geeks, and aimed at geeks is the television show Robot Chicken. The show is an eleven minute stop motion animated program drawing on popular culture and childhood memories of a certain age. The show has three long form specials focusing on Star Wars. As the show is stop motion, the animators literally play with Star Wars dolls all day (custom built rigs and not store bought toys). The animators and producers frequently comment on this daily playtime as being the toughest and best job they have ever held: playtime on camera.
Show co-creator Seth Green remembers his first exposure to Star Wars action figures and their effect on his life. In a 2006 interview, Green states that he learned the names and back stories of all his Star Wars action figures by reading playing with them and reading the cardboard packaging. He also claims that to this day he is a huge action figure fan. Green says that action figures are a way to make your own adventures and learn storytelling. He continues to say that the realization that he could make a television show out of his creative playtime was all too fun. What started as a marketing ploy in Green's childhood morphs into a way to share his enjoyment with a wide audience. On the DVD for Robot Chicken Star Wars: Episode III, a featurette interviews the production staff about their love of Star Wars toys. They express a similar interest to Seth Green. They are living their childhood, and now adulthood, dreams.
With Robot Chicken, a television viewer can tune in once a week and watch adults play with toys.
Coming full circle, the Star Wars franchise rejoins with its independent, toy-liking geek offshoot in the computer animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The series features no physical dolls like Robot Chicken, but it does feature action figure analogues in every episode. The art style of the show consists of angular, roughly shaped character models. Upon close inspection, the characters have a hand painted look to their textures and shading. The animation models and rigs have a limited range of motion, and limbs snap into positions. These characteristics most closely resemble action figures, making The Clone Wars a computer animated show starring Star Wars action figures. The adventures that characters Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Asohka Tano go on every week simulate a child playing with toys on a play set.
With Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a television viewer can tune in once a week and watch toys play with themselves (in a less overt Toy Story).
George Lucas states that The Clone Wars is yet another attempt to bring a new generation of fans into the Star Wars fold. This attempt is similar to the Star Wars toy push led by The Star Wars Holiday Special and The Indian in the Cupboard. It also has similar results among the fan base, both positive and negative. The Clone Wars returns to a 1980s marketing mentality. The program shows children how to have imaginative play and encourages them to buy the toys. They sell children on fun and adventure and convince them that toys are the key. In this regard, it is similar to the original Transformers animated series. See the show, buy the toys, live the life.
Star Wars toys on film start out as a marketing apparatus but burst into popular culture. They are on display to create desire among a marketing segment. Steven Spielberg partially illustrates how children truly play with Star Wars toys in his pair of 1982 films. Children in real life grow up with Star Wars toys. At several points during the franchise's history, Star Wars toys on film demonstrate a split in market self-segmentation. New children learn to appreciate and play with Star Wars toys through films. When these children grow up, they begin to make their own pieces of entertainment. The impact of Star Wars toys is readily apparent on film as their influence on culture is digested in time by popular culture. Eventually, the cultural engine that is Star Wars and Star Wars toys cycles.
Star Wars toys on film encompass a broad variety of feelings and memories about Star Wars. A cynical analysis would focus on the money involved in marketing to children, which is always present. Notwithstanding, the Star Wars toy on film exists in the eye of the beholder: the audience. Toys are inanimate objects brought to life by the magic of movie making. The belief of the child inside of everyone makes them real.