With the imminent release of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra and the announcement that Tom Hanks may star in a Major Matt Mason movie, big-budget films based on toy lines are big business. The last (and first) time this happened was in the 1980s, when there was a slew of feature films based on the various fad toys of the era.
Here’s a look at some of the best and worst toy-based films of the 1980s. With one exception, all of these movies received a theatrical release.
5.) Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer (November 15, 1985)
An ’80s greeting card character turned merchandising phenomenon (a la Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears), I’ll admit I found Rainbow Brite somewhat interesting as a kid. It had more of a good/evil conflict than some of the other girl-oriented toy lines, at least.
The movie had a mediocre run at the box office and has not achieved the cult status of similar films such as The Care Bears Movie, but it’s a better movie than you’d think. However, Rainbow Brite herself has not been particularly popular as a source of 1980s nostalgia (though she did rate a great Robot Chicken skit).
4.) The Care Bears Movie (March 29, 1985)
I can’t remember exactly, but I may have actually seen this one in the theater–if not, I caught it a few times on HBO or the Disney Channel a couple times. The Care Bears started out in 1981 as a series of cards by American Greetings, but were turned into plush toys and even action figures by Kenner in 1983 and quickly became a fad of Pokemon-like proportions.
The Care Bears Movie is surprisingly good. It does what a good toy cartoon movie should, expanding the premise via the introduction of the Care Bear Cousins (animals other than bears whose weapon of choice is the “Cousin Call,” as opposed to the Care Bear Stare).
The story is better than you’d think, following the attempts by an evil spirit to corrupt young children and the Care Bears’ efforts to stop it. Oh, it’s not a great movie, but it was the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film at the time of its release (until An American Tail beat it a year later).
3.) Masters of the Universe (August 7, 1987)
Released years after the height of the toy line’s popularity, savaged by critics and barely recognizable as an adaptation of the toy line, Masters of the Universe nonetheless remains one of the more enjoyable films based on toys, if only for its delightful cheesiness.
Dolph Lundgren plays the oiled-up hero He-Man, while Academy Award-nominated actor Frank Langella portrays the evil Skeletor in a hammy but entertaining performance that channels his more famous role as Dracula in the 1979 John Badham film.
While the acting and production may be lacking, the character and set designs were done by noted French comics artist Moebius. The director, Gary Goddard, was an immense fan of Jack Kirby and it shows in much of the film, particularly the design of the splendid armored Skeletor.
2.) He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword (March 22, 1985)
Though it was released to theaters before the show started, The Secret of the Sword was just a compilation of the first five episode of She-Ra. Released a week before The Care Bears Movie, the film didn’t make much money, but it became a cult classic thanks to its popularity among fans.
The story of SOTS is a cut above the rest of the series, thanks largely due to the involvement of veteran TV writer Larry DiTillio. The movie greatly expanded the Masters’ universe, introducing He-Man’s twin sister She-Ra and a new foe, the ever-popular Hordak.
1.) Transformers: The Movie (August 8, 1986)
While not a box-office success, there’s a lot to like about Transformers: the Movie. First off is the stellar voice cast, including such stars as Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, Eric Idle, and Orson Welles(!) in his final role (he died five days after recording his lines).
The animation is often beautiful and a noticeable improvement over the television series, thanks to production team of veteran Japanese animators. The soundtrack is still catchy today, and Stan Bush’s song “The Touch” has even been referenced (albeit in tongue-in-cheek fashion) in the film Boogie Nights and the show Chuck, and will be available as a Guitar Hero download in the near future. The Transformers soundtrack CD was actually the first thing I ever purchased online, via Prodigy way back in the early 1990s.
However, what fans most remember about this movie is how it completely changed the status quo of the Transformers universe. Almost the entire Autobot G1 cast was killed off, including children’s beloved role model Optimus Prime. Hot Rod was transformed into the new Rodimus Prime, and the Autobots regained control of Cybertron while Megatron–already an unstable individual–was transformed into the insane Galvatron. The entire franchise jumped forward twenty years and became less a story of two warring factions on Earth and more of a space opera.
There are some less-than-stellar moments too, of course: the Dinbots’ constantly morphing sizes; the ill-advised attempts at humor; the bizarre addition of an “old” robot (Kup); Ultra Magnus’s constant displays of epic incompetence (“I can’t deal with that now!”); Danny. But a lot of these flaws are part of what makes the movie so appealing.
Somehow I missed seeing Transformers in the theater–perhaps because it bombed and was in and out of theaters within weeks. But I came to know it, and love it, on video (I remember my parents even convincing the local video store to sell their copy to us). To this day, I still pop it in every so often as an occasional treat. No, it ain’t Shakespeare, but it’s fun.
5.) G.I. Joe: The Movie (1987)
Although originally intended to be a theatrical release, G.I. Joe: The Movie was downgraded to direct-to-video after the poor box office showing of Transformers: the Movie. Nonetheless, it remains a milestone in the franchise–largely for its introduction of such classic, beloved characters as Golobulus, the half-man, half-snake founder of Cobra-La, the ancient civilization of snake-worshippers who are the real power behind Cobra.
That’s right, folks, Cobra wasn’t just a well-funded, technologically-advanced terrorist organization. It was founded and financed by a race of ancient mad scientists who really liked snakes. Awesome, right? Awesome.
4.) My Little Pony: The Movie (June 13, 1986)
Like the Care Bears, there wasn’t much about My Little Pony that seemed to lend itself to a film. That didn’t stop Hasbro from attempting to cash in on the toy cartoon craze of the ’80s, though, and My Little Pony was one of the first out of the gate–and quickly tanked at the box office.
To get a sense of what we’re dealing with, here’s a paragraph from the Wikipedia summary of the plot:
Magic Star, Shady, Gusty (who are out searching for Baby Lickety-Split) and the bushwoolies are the first to see the Smooze. Shady and a purple bushwoolie continue the search for Baby Lickety-Split, while everyone else returns to Dream Castle to warn the others.
Damn, that sounds exactly like that Monty Python skit where Eric Idle reads the children’s storybook, except for the funny part where it gets all dirty.
3.) GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords (March 21, 1986)
God, any toy line could get a feature film into theaters in the 1980s. Somehow, the Transformers’ lame little brothers, the GoBots, got their movie out almost half a year before the TFs did.
The producers managed to convince Margot Kidder, Telly Savalas and Roddy McDowall to do some voices, but the movie was a mere blip on the cinematic radar and hasn’t even been released on DVD due to various copyright and trademark entanglements.
Well, that and the fact that no one cares.
2.) Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw (March 18, 1988)
One of the last of the ’80s toy-based feature films, Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw barked feebly, whimpered and died at the box office.
As someone who once owned and loved a Pound Puppy, they deserved better than this sad, half-assed production.
1.) The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (August 22, 1987)
Some of these movies are delightful treat. Others are tolerably amusing hour-and-a-hour advertisements. And some of these are wretched spawn, festered in the labyrinthine bowels of Hell and issuing forth to bring about misery and despair. Such is The Garbage Pail Kids Movie.
Look, I loved the Garbage Pail Kids cards. They were co-created by underground cartoonist Mark Newgarden and Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Art (Maus) Spiegelman as a brilliant satire of the Cabbage Patch Kids craze and a tribute to the old days of Mars Attacks. I have fond memories of a bus in elementary school that had not one, but two rows of Garbage Pail Kids stickers running around the entire bus above the windows.
But The Garbage Pail Kids movie has little in common with the cards. It’s 100 minutes (no, not 90, but 100!) of deep, deep hurting–deep down in the brain stem and throughout the spine. To be avoided at all costs.