Warner Bros., Funko and Mattel think movie audiences want to watch their toys play on the big screen. Early in January, Warner Bros. and Mattel reached an agreement to produce a live action film based on the latter’s iconic Barbie doll. Margot Robbie, who played Harley Quinn among other roles, will both star as the titular character as well as co-produce the film under her LuckyChap Entertainment banner. Later that same month, the two companies announced a second film also based on an enduring Mattel product – Hot Wheels. No stars or producers have been named yet, and it has been rumored that there may not be any dialogue.
Toy makers look to be the next “LEGO Movie”.
In between the announcement of the Barbie and Hot Wheels cinematic ventures, Warner Bros. also released word that they planned to produce a movie based on the Funko! line of pop-culture vinyl figures. While the movie will be produced by the company’s Warner Animation Group (WAG), it was revealed by Daniel Richtman on the site SuperBrosMovies that the movie will be a hybrid of live-action and animation. The attempt to capture the same magic as with The LEGO Movie was stated in the announcement, ironically coming a week before The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part opened to disappointing numbers.
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Live action and animated shows based on toys or games is not a new phenomenon. Hot Wheels was a Saturday morning cartoon staple between 1969 and 1971 and is considered to be the first case where a media production was derived from a toy, rather than the other way around. Walt Disney and others had long since pioneered the path of successfully merchandising their productions. Toys based on Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist dummy were sold alongside those deriving from Disney and Popeye. Once television became widespread in the 50s, toys that would be considered “pop culture” flourished – with Disney leveraging his Mickey Mouse Club to great retail success.
Bernard Loomis, a member of Mattel Toys sales and marketing department in 1968 when he pitched the idea of an animated series to promote the newly launched Hot Wheels product line. The Hot Wheels cartoon show aired on ABC in September of the following year focusing on the racing exploits of a high school student and the Hot Wheels Racing Club. In 1970, the Federal Communication Commission ruled that the series was a 30-minute commercial for the toys rather than entertainment and had to be counted against the television stations’ commercial time. By the time ABC cancelled Hot Wheels in 1971, Loomis had already jumped to Mattel’s rival, Kenner.
While at Mattel, Loomis began developing the concept of “Toyetic”, a term referring to the suitability of a media property for merchandising. One of the first examples of this concept was the dolls — (ahem) “action figures” — for The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman series. A discussion with producer Steven Spielberg about the lack of merchandising ability for Close Encounters of the Third Kind led Loomis to acquire the licensing rights for the upcoming Star Wars film in 1976, and the rest is history.
In 1980, the FCC rewrote broadcasting guidelines to specifically allow for the use of “character marketing” without it counting as advertising. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Transformers and G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero hit the air in 1983, 1984 and 1985, respectively, as a result of the relaxed standards. He-Man was the first toy-related show to be syndicated (as opposed to being produced by a network) and G.I. Joe was based off the Marvel comics title that had launched in 1982 along with the toy line.
Cinematic Plot Complications
The success on the small screen has rarely translated into success on the big screen. Perhaps the first big screen production tied to a toy was 1985’s Clue which opened to tepid reviews and fell short of recouping its $15M budget. Masters of the Universe, starring Dolph Lundgren failed even more spectacularly in 1987. On the other hand. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a surprise success, becoming the ninth highest grossing film of 1990 despite poor critical reviews.
Since then, the track record of films tied to toys has been decidedly mixed. For every Transformers success, there has been a Battleship bomb. Films that have inspired toys and games have done consistently better than those whose origins lie in the toy aisle.
Meanwhile, Back in Hollywood
With the untitled Funko! and Hot Wheels films along with Barbie early in the development stage, not a lot is known about them beyond the very basic.
SuperBrosMovies’ Daniel Richtman tweeted and later deleted a photo
of the WAG production calendar, revealing that production on the
as-yet-untitled Funko! film would
begin this year. Plot details are being closely guarded, but it is reported
that, like The Lego Movie, characters
from across a wide range of franchises will be included. Wonder Woman, Harley
Quinn, Deadpool, Baby Groot, Darth Vader, Hellboy, Freddy Kruger and Pennywise
will appear on screen alongside characters from the Care Bears, My Little Pony and
The mixture of live action and animation – as reported to be planned for the film – has become more authentic since Disney’s Alice Comedies of 1923-27 surpassing 1988’s Roger Rabbit. In fact, with so much CGI built into major Hollywood productions these days, the ability to retain the cartoon aspect of the animated characters while fitting into the surrounding is actually more of a production challenge. The appearance of Mr. Mime in the trailer for the upcoming Detective Pikachu movie produced a lot of horrified reactions across social media.
The plot of Barbie, due out in 2020, is that a doll living in Barbieland is expelled for not being perfect enough and sets off an adventure in the real world. It is not known whether Margot Robbie will be voicing her Funko! Harley Quinn avatar while she co-produces and stars in Barbie, but she had plenty to say about her project.
“Playing with Barbie promotes confidence, curiosity and communication throughout a child’s journey to self-discovery. Over the brand’s almost 60 years, Barbie has empowered kids to imagine themselves in aspirational roles from a princess to president. I’m so honored to take on this role and produce a film that I believe will have a tremendously positive impact on children and audiences worldwide. I can’t imagine better partners than Warner Bros and Mattel to bring this film to the big screen.”
Margo also returns to her role as Harley Quinn starting in March when filming begins for Birds of Prey. The character of Barbie herself will also appear in the upcoming Toy Story 4, voiced by The Little Mermaid voice actress Jodie Benson.
But Wait, There’s More!
Even less is known about the Hot Wheels movie, aside from it being a live action film. Both it and Barbie are the first ventures made by the newly established Mattel Films division of the venerable toy maker. Helmed by producer Robbie Brenner. At the announcement of the deal with Warner Bros., his boss Ynon Kreiz, Mattel’s chairman and CEO (and former CEO of Maker Studios) stated, “Mattel Films has great momentum as it continues to execute on our commitment to bring global audiences new ways to experience the brands they love as we transform Mattel into an IP-driven, high performing toy company.” Mattel Films will also be reviving the stalled Masters of the Universe movie with Sony this year as well.
A sister division, Mattel Television, was also recently formed and is aiming to capitalize on the company’s IP announcing that no less than 22 animated live action and animated TV programs will be produced. These are to be aimed at multi-platform distribution rather than cinematic big screen releases. The genres will range from action adventure and humor to game shows and music targeting audiences ranging from toddlers up through preschool, tweens, teens and family fair. Mattel’s Kreiz noted the growing demand for streaming content to complement the big releases, “with the proliferation of broadcasting and streaming platforms, there is a growing demand for high-quality content driven by global brands. Mattel is the owner of one of the strongest portfolios of children’s and family entertainment franchises in the world. We have countless opportunities to bring these brands to their fans through episodic programming that will capture the imaginations of kids and families worldwide.”
It is unclear, however, to whom Kreiz might be referring when he mentions this growing demand. Is it really the audience, or is it the merchandizers who see a way to make some quick bucks?
The time was that watching toys play by themselves was the stuff of horror flicks. Soon, it’ll be kid-friendly and available 24/7.