Every time I mow my lawn, the smell of fresh-cut grass takes me back to the late ’70s, when my friend A.J. and I would pool our “Star Wars” figures and vehicles and set up epic battles in his backyard during lazy summer afternoons. We were both fanatical about the film and its sequels, although by the time “Return of the Jedi” was released in 1983, we had both outgrown the toys and I had moved away because of my parents’ divorce.
I don’t know what happened to my “Star Wars” toys (given the turmoil in my family, I wasn’t really thinking about them much at the time), but A.J. and I reconnected on Facebook a while back, and he told me he rescued his from his parents’ attic. He and I still chat about “Star Wars” sometimes, catching up on our mutual dislike of the prequels while sharing our trepidation for the new sequels. In the meantime, I wish I still had my toys, so I could pass them down to my kids as he has with his daughter.
That’s why I was so intrigued when A.J. sent me the link to “Plastic Galaxy: The History of ‘Star Wars’ Toys.” I knew that collecting the old toys had become a big deal in some fan circles since the mid-90s, and I was aware of some of the history behind the toys, like the infamous empty “Early Bird” box that many kids received under the tree in Christmas 1977, but I wanted to know more. (I was not one of the “Early Bird” recipients, but by the summer of 1978, my love of “Star Wars” toys was in full swing.)
This documentary ended up hitting me harder than the smell of fresh-cut grass on a summer afternoon. Through interviews with serious collectors — including, of course, Steve Sansweet — as well as former Kenner employees, “Plastic Galaxy” digs through a phenomenon that actually began well before the original movie was released, when George Lucas was trying to get some merchandising in motion for what he hoped would be a modestly successful film. He ended up securing a deal with Kenner, a mid-level toy company that saw the potential in “Star Wars” that big firms like Mattel didn’t.
When box office lines began stretching around the block during the summer of ’77, though, Kenner realized it needed to get some action figures ready for that Christmas. However, the toy industry can’t move that quickly, which is what led to parents buying those empty “Early Bird” boxes in December 1977 so their kids could fill out the redemption cards in the hope of receiving the first few figures the following spring. (It may seem crazy to you young folks out there, but “Star Wars” actually played in many movie theaters for over a year, with a re-release in 1979, so the merchandising had a very long tail.)
Once the “Star Wars” line was underway and Kenner added enough employees to handle the resulting boom in their business, the company enjoyed several years during which it greatly expanded the action figure line to include minor characters and added all kinds of vehicles. And aside from a few folks like Sansweet, who was a Wall Street Journal reporter at the time, many of those who owned the toys ended up putting them through a ton of wear and tear during all those sandbox battles. One collector shows us his X-wing fighter from when he was a kid, or, at least, what’s left of it. And when someone talked about freezing their Han Solo to replicate the character’s fate in “The Empire Strikes Back,” I remembered doing the same thing.
“Plastic Galaxy” uses interviews with several designers and executives from that time period to talk about what was happening at Kenner, although unfortunately the film only gets as far as the toys’ mid-90s renaissance and doesn’t touch on what’s happened since then. There are also a few silly moments where director Brian Stillman attempts to milk some drama out of the proceedings, such as when a former Kenner executive talks about the intense pressure the company was under and dramatic music rolls under his words, complete with a red overlay on the video. Overall, it sounds like Kenner was pretty well run and had a good CEO, so why bother with that kind of stuff?
However, none of those nitpicks take much away from a documentary that is well researched and fun to watch, with a nice sense of production design, such as the opening credits that are based on one of the old Kenner toy catalogs. The DVD they sent to me was also well done, with a fun image on the disc label. You can thank the backers on Kickstarter, who poured another $9,000 into the project in the spring of 2012, for enabling Stillman and his collaborators to put a nice layer of frosting on their cake.
The DVD also includes some stuff that was deleted from the documentary because it delved into the kind of minutiae that only the geekiest of the geeks would appreciate:
• “The Art & Science of Kenner Prototypes”: Clocking in at 20 minutes, this is the longest bonus feature. It digs into a subset of “Star Wars” toy fandom in which collectors seek out the prototypes that were used during the toys’ design phases. It repeats a little bit from the documentary about the infamous unreleased Boba Fett figure with a firing rocket, but otherwise, it delves into something that I admit I knew nothing about beforehand. It also touches on some collectors’ interest in obtaining various items from Kenner’s corporate history, such as mugs and other things given to employees.
• “The Secret Origin of Steve Sansweet”: This is a four-minute piece in which he talks about how he got into assembling what is now the world’s largest collection of “Star Wars” toys.
• “Micros: Tiny Toys, Giant Disaster”: This nine-minute bonus feature is a bit misnamed, since I wouldn’t consider the Micro Collection line to have been a “giant disaster,” but, rather, a line of toys that Kenner quickly realized wasn’t working because parents had already put a lot of money in their kids’ larger size action figure collections and didn’t want to start over. They quickly realized the error of their ways and halted sales of the toys, which are now popular collectibles because they were pretty cool and ended up being somewhat scarce.
• “Know Your Toy Lightsaber”: This final four-minute piece isn’t actually deleted footage, or if it is, I’m not sure where it would have fit in the film. It’s actually a fun little short film in which Stillman talks about toy lightsaber knock-offs in the late 70s and Kenner’s eventual response to them in the form of officially licensed lightsabers, the first of which was actually a blow-up one.