Saturday, 13 April 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - How To Kill A Toy Franchise In 65 Episodes Or Less!

Hard to believe, but this "movable fighting man" from the 1960s was enough to inspire 5 animated series and 3 feature films - the most recent of which ('G.I. Joe: Retaliation') should surpass the $100 million mark at the box office next week. It's amazing how much this hunk (and I do mean "hunk" - check out that life-like beard!) of plastic has generated the use of so much other plastic. As in, debit and credit cards.

Lots of cartoons and movies generate successful toy sales, but rarely does the toyline fuel the features like G.I. Joe has. G.I. Joe was a toy first, then became a multimedia merchandising machine.

Sometimes the merchandising is successful early-on, but doesn't translate well to a popular or profitable series. Today we'll take a look at a few examples of this and learn where the toy-makers and TV execs went wrong.  

Hot Wheels is probably one of the most enduring and popular toy franchises in history. Introduced in 1968 by Mattel, the line attracts both car-buffs who appreciate attention to detail, and toy collectors who appreciate their frequent nods to pop culture. Oh yeah, and kids like them too.

Hot Wheels had a successful series in more recent years with Battle Force 5 on Cartoon Network, but when the brand was first launched on CBS back in 1969, it was met with much controversy. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received complaints from rival toy companies, who claimed the shows were nothing more than toy commercials. Weird, I know! Eventually, a law was passed preventing Saturday morning product placement to be disguised as children's programming, resulting in Hot Wheels' cancellation in 1971.

That ruling was later over-turned in 1983, which spring-loaded an onslaught of mega-merchandising, where cartoon and toy companies created an unholy alliance to make back the money they never received in the 70s. That movement became commonly known as He-Man and The Masters of The Universe.

A quick sidenote about Hot Wheels before we get back on-track - famous voices heard in the original series included Casey Kasem and Albert Brooks.

GoBots were dealt an unfair hand in 1984. Tonka released the toys in North America several months before those "other" transforming robots rolled-out. But by Christmas that year, both lines were in direct competition with each other.

While the GoBot toyline was first to hit shelves, the Transformers cartoon was first to hit the airwaves in 1984, 2 months before Hanna Barbera's Challenge of The GoBots mini-series. GoBots continued one year later with a 65-episode syndicated run between 1985 and 1986, but it was 9 months too late after 13 episodes of Transformers.

There was also a movie called 'GoBots: Battle of The Rock Lords', which beat 'Transformers: The Movie' to theatres by several months in 1986, although the Transformers movie went into production before GoBots did. Upon release, GoBots only made a paltry $1.5 million dollars domestically. Transformers didn't fair much better though, making only $5 million.

Despite the existence of 65 episodes, Challenge of The GoBots makes the fail list because unlike Transformers, it didn't bolster any excitement to buy the toyline. And to be fair, the toys themselves weren't interesting or innovative enough to entice additional viewership. In both toy and cartoon, Transformers simply saturated the market better.

Interestingly, Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime, also voiced several GoBots, including Pincher, Spoiler and Tank. Frank Welker, who voiced the original Megatron, also provided GoBot voices for Scooter, Blaster and Rest-Q.

Around the same time as the start of these robot wars, Cabbage Patch Kids were begin adopted by the other half of the continent.

Cabbage Patch Kids never had an animated series, although they did get their own lousy Christmas special. But that's not what we're covering today. The franchise we're focusing on wasn't even really a toyline, but it rose to the top of the sales heap in the '80s.

Garbage Pail Kids was a successful series of parody trading cards created by cartoonist Art Spiegelman and Topps in 1985. They still release cards (the most recent series came out last year), but what you won't see anytime soon is another cartoon series. In fact, barely anyone saw the original.

Intended to air on CBS in 1987, the Canadian-made Garbage Pail Kids was dumped days before its premiere and replaced with Muppet Babies repeats. Concerned parents and coalitions for responsible television protested the show's history and content. Some also protested the merchandising tie-ins. 

The show never aired in North America, but was shown in the U.K., Israel and Iceland among other countries.

This was a rotten time for Garbage Pail Kids in other respects. In 1986, Topps was sued by the makers of Cabbage Patch Kids for copyright infringement. Schools banned the trading cards for distracting their students. And 'Garbage Pail Kids' was also an awful and barely released live action movie in 1987, which stunk up the box office and is still regarded as one of the worst films ever made. Not sure how anyone could've been surprised with the word 'garbage' in the title though.

Also putting the "gross" in toy grosses that year were Madballs.

Canadian company Nelvana produced a two-episode Madballs series, which went nowhere, other than straight-to-video. Cool new innovations they introduced "for the kids" were 1) giving the balls legs so they could walk, and 2) putting them in a 1950's rock-n'-roll cover band. Y'know, "for the kids"!

Balls, indeed. Total balls.

Let's move from the crude to the cutesy. The 1980s had so many sickeningly adorable things to buy and watch, like Smurfs, Snorks, Wuzzles, Care Bears, Care Bear Cousins, Monchhichis, Pound Puppies, Fluppy Dogs, Gummi Bears, Glo Worms, etc. But perhaps most useless of all were Popples.

Popples were pretty poppler poppluar popular, and of course, received their own series. I don't have any specific theories as to when Popples popped from the public consciousness (largely because I'm a 30+ year old man), but it can be no coincidence that it happened not long after the release of this terrible cartoon, which featured the screeching hysterics of the most annoying creatures on Earth. I guess considering the series lasted two seasons (!), it can't be labeled a complete failure. But in terms of content, it's an abomination, because it seems like the makers of the show just accepted the fact they had nothing to do with these creatures except for them to be annoying, and we all accepted that and watched anyway. For two whole seasons!

This cartoon didn't fail. Humanity did.

Speaking of annoying...

Troll dolls have been around since the early 1960s. They were invented by a woodcutter named Thomas Dam, who made a version of the doll for his daughter when he couldn't afford to buy her a Christmas gift. Once interest peaked, he started mass-producing a plastic version of the doll with the trademark electric-socket hair. Popularity of Good Luck Trolls ebbed and flowed throughout the years. But in 1992 it hit its apex, when Trolls starred in their own shrill Smurf-like cartoon special, Magical Super Trolls. "Troll-y cow", it's awful!

There was also a series in 2005 called Trollz. Y'know, "for the kids"! I mean, "kidz". These trollz were hip teenagerz who texted each other and hung out at the mall. There was a toyline that accompanied it, but no one seemed to care.

Did I mention I was 30+ year old man?

Sadly, this wasn't enough to kill the franchise. DreamWorks is threatening to release a feature film about 'Trolls' in 2015, starring Jason Schwartzman and Chloë Grace Moretz. But I'm hoping they'll turn their names into puns, like Trollë Grace Moretz. I just made that up. Although I'm not "trolling" for compliments here.

DreamWorks obviously has high hopes for the film, as Cartoon Brew just reported they purchased the worldwide Trolls licensing rights from creator Thomas Dam this week! Won't be long now until another "flow" brings the Trolls franchise flooding back to toy stores!

Okay, you've all sat through some horrible things this morning, and for that I apologize. But it is with great regret I must apologize again, and admit I've saved the worst for last. The most insidious sullying of a toy franchise ever committed to cel! And a once-great toy at that!

I can only imagine how the fateful ABC Saturday morning pitch meeting went down in late 1982...

TV Exec: "So what do you have for us?"

Pitchman: "Well, you know the Rubik's Cube, right?"

TV Exec: "Right. I love that thing!"

Pitchman: "Well, maybe you'd love it more if he had a face?"

TV Exec: "Maybe."

Pitchman: "A blue, childlike alien face!"

TV Exec: "Go on."

Pitchman: "And he talked in a hilarious voice!"

TV Exec: "I'm listening."

Pitchman: "And he flew and had magical powers that could only be released when the colours on his whimsical puzzle body were properly aligned!"

TV Exec: "I'll stop you right there for a second. Anyway he can appeal to a more Hispanic crowd?"

Pitchman: "As a matter of fact, yes! Because this magical box face just happens to be owned by 3 precocious Latino children!"

TV Exec: "I LOVE it! Here's a sack full of money! Hire popular boy-band Menudo to do the theme song."

Pitchman: "Yes sir! Let's do some drugs to celebrate! I found these rad new uppers called Popples!"

TV Exec: "Popples, eh...?"


I'm pretty depressed right now. Could really use a few Popples. The drugs, I mean. Or maybe I'll just head over here and have a colourful, magical, lovable day!

Join us next week for Part 2 of 20 on "The Saturday Morning Life And Times of Menudo".

No comments:

Post a Comment