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The most iconic toys on film

BY Victoria Luxford

5th Jul 2023 Film & TV

The most iconic toys on film

Victoria Luxford takes a look at the most iconic toys that appeared on the big screen, from GI Joe to Barbie, and asks why we love films about toys so much

One of the magical things about movies is their ability to make our imagination come to life. Stories we may have only seen on the written page or in our minds suddenly play out on giant screens to the delight of millions. It's perhaps no surprise, then, that Barbie and Ken dolls have found their voice in one of the most anticipated films of the summer starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling.

"Some of the biggest toys in history have enjoyed an enduring love affair with Hollywood"

However, the iconic doll is far from the only toybox favourite to head to the movies, as some of the biggest toys in history have enjoyed an enduring love affair with Hollywood.

The history of toys on film

Film has always had a close-knit relationship with toys. Of course, few blockbusters can afford not to have an accompanying toy line, but many box office hits have wondered what would happen if your playroom pals suddenly came to life. The biggest example of this is Pixar's Toy Story franchise, which initially used fictional toy brands based on childhood favourites, and celebrated the joy of creating new adventures with your favourite cowboy or spaceman.

There were also more sinister takes, like 1998 satire Small Soldiers or infamous 1980s horror Child's Play, both featuring possessed toys with less-than-wholesome intentions. In both instances, it was about the joy of play, and the meaning we attach to our childhood playthings, that was either celebrated or subverted.  

In terms of real-life brands, it was a while before any toys would truly find their feet in the multiplex. Eighties behemoth Masters of The Universe had a successful tie-in cartoon, but the 1986 film of the same name, starring Dolph Lundgren, was an infamous failure.

Even big hitters like Barbie and My Little Pony would stick to TV shows and straight-to-video movies. It wouldn’t be until the late 2000s that the jump from the toy shelf to the cinema screen was successfully made in the long term.

"The combination of spectacle and nostalgia was a provable formula for success"

In 2007, action director Michael Bay brought the Transformers toys to life in the form of a loud, and wildly successful franchise that continues to this day. Toys had gone from being dismissed as the preserve of children, to being recognised as rich universes to be explored. The combination of spectacle and nostalgia was a provable formula for success, and many toys queued up to repeat it. In the same year, Bratz dolls brought their attitude to live action, while the first of three GI Joe movies would come in 2009.

Despite this success, eyebrows were still raised when the Lego group announced a movie for 2014. By its very definition, Lego could be anything. There’s no lore or backstory to adapt, so what could they possibly create?

Well, as it turns out, quite a lot! Fusing numerous properties into one story about the power of imagination made one of the biggest hits of that year, which led to a sequel and a spin-off for Lego Batman, a fan favourite supporting character from the first film.

After that, the floodgates opened—classroom favourites Trolls have enjoyed two hit animated movies (with a third on the way), My Little Pony found its way to the biggest screens with a voice cast that included Frozen's Kristen Bell and Emily Blunt. Playmobil, another construction toy, made its play for movie stardom with Daniel Radcliffe and Anya Taylor-Joy. 

"Today, there are numerous toys-turned-movie stars"

Today, there are numerous toys-turned-movie stars. In addition to Barbie and Transformers, the American Girl line of dolls is getting an adaptation, while Star Wars director JJ Abrams is producing a movie based on the infamous Hot Wheels and Lena Dunham is busy working on a re-imagining of Polly Pocket.  

Why does Hollywood love toys?

But why does Hollywood have such an affinity for toys, and why do we keep coming back to see them? The answer is simple: play. It’s one thing that we all have in common, and can all appreciate. Some toys may be more expensive than others, but if you’ve been young, you’ve probably dressed a doll, run a race car along a table, or tried to construct something from a few plastic pieces. Play is innate to who we are, and it’s represented in the best of the movies in that genre.

The original Lego Movie is set within an animated world, but is revealed midway through to be the creation of a young boy who has snuck in to use his father’s (Will Ferrell) old Lego set. The freedom of play, and finding who we are through the toys we play with, is also present in Barbie—the many iterations of Barbie and Ken illustrate the doll’s aspirational qualities, that allows kids to be whatever they want.

It’s clever marketing, certainly, but also a theme shared in the much darker horror hit M3GAN. A satire of virtual assistants and web-connected toys, before things turn bloody it anchors the story in the emotional connection between a grieving girl (Violet McGraw) and a lifelike doll who would do anything to protect her. However tongue-in-cheek, that speaks to the feeling many young people have where toys and play allow them to feel a bit less different.  

With much of the last 20 years being devoted to superheroes and world saving scenarios, it’s clear that the lightness of movies like Barbie are appealing to those of us looking for escapism with lower stakes. For young viewers, it’s a chance to see their own stories translated before their eyes. For the young at heart, it’s a chance to escape the pressures of the outside world in the same way we did as youngsters. 

Cover image: Barbie, Warner Bros Pictures. 

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