Netflix is back with another dose of toy-focused nostalgia in Season 3 of The Toys That Made Us. This season has some heavy hitters: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, My Little Pony, and the many and varied toys that honor the superstars of professional wrestling. That’s a loaded list, but how does this season deal with all that history and fan frenzy?
Quite well in fact, as you might have guessed if you’ve watched the previous two seasons. The editing and pacing is top notch this season, as it the pretty expansive cast of guest stars, including talking heads and industry experts who weigh in on the toys, their history, and their cultural impact. With the exception of Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Stan Lee, Kevin Smith, and possibly Lauren Faust, most of these people aren’t household names, but the parts they played in the creation of some of the 80s and 90s most iconic toys–and the franchises themselves–were absolutely essential. That’s a big reason why The Toys That Made Us isn’t just a nice nostalgic escape back to the days of yore but a worthy series that documents some of the craziest, most influential pop culture movements in the modern era.
Take, for example, the piece on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This episode may tell of the unexpected success of the TMNT franchise that continues to this day, but its emotional heart is rooted in the storybook-turned-contentious relationship between co-creators Eastman and Laird. It also factors in the self-described “Fifth Turtle” Mark Freedman, who took a chance on the indie comic duo and helped to turn the spoofy superheroes into a worldwide phenomenon. But like any other massive toy franchise, it took a veritable village to actually pull off the impossible on the road to success; TMNT was no exception, and TTTMU (see what I did there?) highlights many of those team members. (You’ll also learn, for example, that Eastman used his first mega paycheck from the toys to buy a friggin’ tank.)
The trend continued with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, an episode that tracks Bandai America’s success from a struggling subsidiary of the Japanese parent company (their biggest claim to fame before MMPR was sidewalk chalk…) to a giant in the toy world, while also showcasing the sublime genius of Haim Saban. The musician-turned-super-producer saw the possibility in licensing the Japanese henshin and sentai series for worldwide distribution (including toy rights, cha-ching) and saving money by filming American actors for Western audiences while keeping the original action sequences. Sheer brilliance. It made the difference between Saban’s success with the series and the failed attempt by the one and only Stan Lee and then-Fox TV president Margaret Loesch to do the same thing years earlier. It’s an amazing look at the franchise that continues to this day.
Speaking of modern mega-franchises, another installment this season is My Little Pony. This fascinating look at the history of the iconic toyline meant for girls (and later, Bronies) tracks the many people who claim to have created it in the first place to the many, many creative folks who have shaped the brand over the years. From colorful coats, to “cutie marks”, to a guest appearance by Twilight Sparkle herself Tara Strong, this episode is definitely for the super-fans out there.
And it doesn’t get much more super than the superstars of the squared circle. Rather than focus on one brand, this episode looks at the many and varied toys to come out of the professional wrestling circuit, along with a quick recap of the history of wrestling itself. This story should find purchase with both collectors of pro-wrestling toys and figures and fans of the sports entertainment artform itself. It goes way back to the days of regional wrestling before it was unified under the McMahon family and gave rise to superstars like Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. But the toy competition was just as fierce as the fighting in the ring or between emerging professional wrestling companies, and this episode reveals a fascinating look at the ever-evolving industry.
Overall, one thing rings true from this season of The Toys That Made Us: The wildly successful franchises that we know and love today first started with visionaries who believed in their singular idea so much that they wouldn’t take no for an answer. And there were lots of “No’s” along their paths. That didn’t stop them. So it’s a big “Thank You” to The Toys That Made Us team for highlighting that indie artist spirit and encouraging other aspiring creators out there to keep pushing forward. Who knows, you might just be the next toy-creator that makes fond memories for the next generation out there.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent