From Figurine to the Big Screen

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Chuck Zlotnick / Lionsgate Films / AP

A scene from the film Bratz.

The child's makeshift fort, constructed of sleeping bags and dining room chairs, does not have a savvy marketing department. If it did, The Fort™, like any hot plaything, would have an animated TV show, a comic book, a video game available on multiple platforms and its own aisle at Toys R Us with several Fort variations to encourage repeat shopping. Oh yes, and this summer, The Fort would have its own movie. The Fort Movie would star someone just a little bit too old and too good-looking to be playing in a fake fort, who manages to save the world despite the bumbling of some idiotic grown-ups who don't understand the true power of the fort. The inevitably successful Fort Movie would spawn Fort Movie II: The Sleeping Bag of Secrets, with a bigger special effects budget and fun new sidekick, The Cardboard Box™.

We should probably copyright that Fort Movie idea because Hollywood, which has made a mint selling toys inspired by its movies for decades, is now selling movies based on toys. And, as if this summer's news that Baby Einstein videos won't necessarily send a newborn to Harvard and toys made in China may cause intestinal damage weren't enough to send parents back to good old teddy bears, it turns out toy movies aren't all that great for kids either.

This summer, two multiplex options, Transformers, a tale of warring alien robot races, and the Bratz movie, a yarn about a group of girls united by a shared love of fashion, are based on popular kids' toys. Movies about G.I. Joe, the American Girl dolls, the animatronic robot toy Robosapien and He-Man are in the production pipeline. For movie studios and toy manufacturers, toy movies are a no brainer — the link creates a kind of branding blitzkrieg that leaves nearly every child in the targeted demographic hit by Bratz or Transformers lust. This summer, the Transformers movie has taken in more than $600 million at the box office, and helped sell more than 3 million new Transformers toys.

The problem with the toy-movie connection, say child development experts, is that it's helping to speed a gloomy trend that has been developing for decades—the creative death of playtime. "The most imaginative play takes place when children have gaps in information that need to be filled," says Susan Linn, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. A generic babydoll, for example, needs a child to give her a personality, a family, what a screenwriter would call a backstory. A teddy bear needs something to do, a plot. But, "when children see the film and then they have all the toys, there's less room to experiment or come up with meaning of their own," Linn says. Another problem that Linn and others have with the Transformers movie is its PG-13 rating, meaning it may be inappropriate for the majority of young children who play with Transformers toys, down to age four. Hasbro, the company that makes Transformers and G.I. Joe, deflects these issues. "Parents know their children best," says Samantha Lomow, vice president of boys' marketing at Hasbro. "It's for them to decide what's appropriate for their child."

But putting sole responsibility on parents, says Linn, doesn't address the increasing relentlessness of the marketing they face. Consider Disney's Princesses, a lucrative brand built on sub-par, straight-to-DVD sequels to animated Disney classics like Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Even the "parenting advice" section of Disney's Princesses website entreats mom and dad to "Cuddle up with your little princess and her favorite Disney Princess doll ... as you read her her favorite story." Nowhere does it say what to do if your little princess is throwing a temper tantrum cause you won't buy her a "Melody" doll, Ariel's daughter from The Little Mermaid II. In June, Princess-weary parents got a piece of good news — Disney said it will stop making the direct-to-DVD sequels, a move that reflects the influence of Disney's largest shareholder Steve Jobs, who once called the films "embarrassing." However Enchanted, the first live action Disney Princess film, will open in theaters in November; Giselle, the Enchanted doll, was introduced in February.

The toy-movie link, like so many modern Hollywood conventions with unfortunate consequences, can be traced back to the success of Star Wars. Over the last 30 years, Star Wars-linked merchandise has grossed a galactic $9 billion. "What was different about Star Wars was that everything you saw on the screen you could get a toy of," says Diane Levin, professor of education at Wheelock College. In the early 1980s, at the height of Yoda figurine hysteria, the toy and entertainment industries successfully lobbied for the deregulation of children's television, allowing them to base animated TV shows around popular toys like G. I. Joe and the Care Bears. Only recently, however, did Hollywood start producing toy-inspired movies for theaters. As the cost of making and marketing movies has gotten so high, producers have started searching for movies with built-in brand recognition. "We're all looking around and saying, 'What about properties that have withstood the test of time?'" says Avi Arad, a former toy designer and Marvel Studios executive who is a producer of the Bratz movie. Parents who can't stand the overtly sexy Bratz dolls will be relieved to find that they have cleaned up their acts for the movie. But they've now got dialogue. "We have to give these girls attributes," says Arad. "What subject do they like, what music do they listen to, who are their parents?"

After the success of Transformers, more movies based on toys will be rushed into development, never mind the DVDs, which bring some creativity-crushing side-effects of their own. "It used to be that kids went to the movies once and saw a film and then if they wanted to revisit the film and enter that world again, they played about it," says Linn. Now, instead of recreating Snow White's world in their heads, kids pop in the DVD and mouth along to "Magic Mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?" over and over again. Media-linked toys aren't just making it hard for kids to learn to play creatively, they're making it hard for them to grow into interesting adults. That has ramifications toy companies and movie studios should take take seriously: "Creative play translates into creative work," Linn says, like inventing and screenwriting.