Film Review: The Toys That Made Us, Season 1

by Julia DeKorte | 26 Jan 2023

Book Reviews

When Brian Volk-Weiss created the docuseries The Toys That Made Us, he created an accessible and entertaining way for anyone to learn about the history of their favorite toys. In each episode of The Toys That Made Us, a different toy line is delved into, with season 1 focusing on Star Wars, Barbie, He-Man, and G.I. Joe. Entertaining yet informational, and humorous yet factual, The Toys That Made Us is an incredible docuseries fit for anyone wanting to learn a little more about the world’s most significant toy lines.


Each episode begins with a reenactment of how the ideas for these great toys came to be before a catchy theme song plays. A narrator walks viewers through who came up with the original idea, who had to believe in it, and who had to create it before diving into its success on the market. With animation, past commercial clips, and interviews making up the majority of the content, viewers get an excellent sense of all of the efforts that go into the creation of a toy line, along with some behind the scenes knowledge. Over 20 different people were interviewed for each episode, including creators, designers, and other executives that worked on these famous toys in their heyday, so viewers get an inside look at what really went on.


Season 1, Episode 1: Star Wars

Episode 1 walks readers through the creation and development of Star Wars toys, beginning with a young George Lucas pitching his ideas to toy giants – Hasbro, Mattel – and being turned down. When Kenner Toys agreed to take on Star Wars, they were wildly unprepared for just how wildly popular Star Wars was going to be. Viewers hear from designers about how their favorite figures came to be, from collectors about why toys are so important to them, as well as other significant characters – Alan Hassenfeld of Hasbro, Jim Swearingen, a former senior product designer at Kenner who was the only one to see the potential in young George Lucas and his ideas, and various authors, collectors, and professors who’ve loved Star Wars since they were young. Viewers are taken on a journey through the life of Star Wars and the toy company that created the tangible products that brought the movies to life for children, from the trilogy’s end to the next six movies that came out, to Hasbro purchasing Kenner and almost losing the license. The lasting effects that Star Wars’ toys had on the community that loved the films so much is obvious, and this episode captures that love perfectly.


Season 1, Episode 2: Barbie

In this episode, viewers learn all about the most popular and highest grossing doll of all time: Barbie. From Ruth and Elliot Handler’s founding of Mattel to Ruth’s relentless push for a fashion doll that young girls could play with, all the way through the Handlers’ downfall and eventual restoration, the episode covers the lifespan of Barbie, though she is still incredibly popular to this day. Viewers learn about Ruth Handler’s original inspiration for Barbie and are taken through the many different phases of Barbie, who changed with society, starting off as more traditional in the 50s and moving through the 60s, becoming more contemporary, the 70s, embracing the sexual revolution, the 80s, becoming a rockstar. Constantly faced with controversies, we see the resiliency of Barbie as she is broken down and rebuilt time and time again. With interviews from Jill Barad, former CEO of Mattel, Richard Dickson, the current president and COO of Mattel, Carol Spencer, a notable designer on the Barbie line, and over twenty others, viewers hear stories from the creation of Barbie that have never been heard before. Barbie’s legacy is one that will never be forgotten, and this episode absolutely does it justice.


Season 1, Episode 3: He-Man

The comradery that existed between a lively group of men for He-Man to come into existence is what this episode captures best. When Mattel passed over the Star Wars license and realized it made a mistake, it needed something to compete with Kenner. And so, after observing the play patterns of 5-year-old boys, Paul Cleveland, former senior VP of worldwide marketing, Derek Gable, former director of preliminary design, Mark Ellis, former VP of boys’ toys, Roger Sweet and Mark Taylor, both toy designers, created He-Man, a muscular action figure focused on themes of power. Eventually, He-Man grew to Masters of the Universe, and the toy line became a huge hit. Through a comic book, T.V. show, motion picture, spin-off, and video game, viewers are taken on the wildly successful, yet rather short-lived, adventure of He-Man. Like other toy classics, there is a large community of collectors, a few of whom are interviewed for the series, along with comic book designers, actors from the live motion picture, and other important characters like Tom Kalinske, the former CEO of Mattel. The pure fun and simple willingness to try new things is showcased in this episode, as a group of five men who love play created one of the most celebrated classic toys in history.


Season 1, Episode 4: G.I. Joe

Diving deep into the Hassenfeld/Hasbro history, the final episode of season 1 dives deep into the first ever action figure. Beginning with Stan Weston’s idea for a doll for boys, continuing to Don Levine’s efforts to convince Merrill Hassenfeld that boys would in fact play with a doll, through the highs and lows of the success of G.I. Joe, this episode covers everything about the most collected toy of all time. G.I. Joe was born in a time of great American patriotism, given their recent win of World War II, so G.I. Joe found success as “the great American hero.” However, once the controversy over the Vietnam War grew and decreased American patriotism, the creators of G.I. Joe had to turn toward more adventurous endeavors, rather than more militaristic missions. Alan Hassenfeld is featured talking about how G.I. Joe impacted his family, alongside many other designers, executives, and relatives of integral characters in the making of G.I. Joe. As the most collected toy of all time, G.I. Joe and its history was truly honored in this episode.

Star Wars star wars toys george lucas lucasfilm kenner barbie ruth handler handlers mattel malibu barbie he-man g.i. joe gi joe hasbro hassenfeld stan weston toys

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