Janet Hetherington examines how original animated direct-to-DVD animated adventures based on toy brands may extend the play value of popular toys.
As Woody, Buzz Lightyear and all their friends from Toy Story know, toys come alive in the imaginations of children as they play. For some popular brands, however, the toy also comes to life on-screen -- in animated DVDs that can become successful extensions of a toy's play and entertainment value.
These original animated productions, showcasing the adventures of popular toy brands, are most often targeted at the direct-to-DVD market. Recent and upcoming releases include Barbie Fairytopia: Magic of the Rainbow (March 13, 2007), Bratz Fashion Pixiez (February 27, 2007), Strawberry Shortcake: Berry Blossom Festival (May 1, 2007) and Betsy Bubblegum's Journey Through Yummi-Land (fall 2007).
"DVDs help deliver the fantasy, making the play experience richer and more meaningful for kids," comments Cheryl McCarthy, vice president and producer, Hasbro Properties Group. "For example, when a girl learns key personality traits about Pinkie Pie through the My Little Pony DVDs, playing with her Pinkie Pie toys is even more fun and magical."
It's a Barbie World
"Barbie was the first brand to lead this type of animated DVD," says Glenn Ross, general manager and executive vice president of Universal Family Productions. Universal Studios Home Entertainment distributed Fairytopia: Magic of the Rainbow, as well as last year's Barbie in The 12 Dancing Princesses. The franchise first started seven years ago with annual holiday-themed titles, then branched into Barbie Fairytopia in 2005 and further expanded in 2006 with the Dancing Princesses theme. The Barbie direct-to-videos/DVDs were previously distributed by Lionsgate.
Ross says that the Barbie DVDs sell millions of units worldwide, and that the Dancing Princesses prompted a resurgence for the brand. "We got a lift, a noticeable growth spurt, from that release," he says. The CG animation was provided by Mainframe Entertainment.
Ross cites the success of the direct-to-videos/DVDs featuring Mattel's Barbie on the fashion doll's strong brand presence, and what he calls "cultural anthropology." "Barbie is 40-plus years old," notes Ross. "Four generations have grown up with Barbie and there's a mythology to her."
The DVDs, generally targeted at five- to 10-year-old girls, aim to add to that mythology. In Barbie Fairytopia: Magic of the Rainbow, a character named Elina (Barbie) and a group of imaginatively rendered, fantastical friends face down her evil nemesis, Laverna, in a race to save Fairytopia. In this adventure, Elina learns important lessons about the power of friendship, courage and teamwork.
Ross says that his company provided the packaging and special features offered on the DVD, including interactive games, coloring pages and other activities. "We're very careful with this material because it's going into the hands of children," Ross comments. "We must maintain the integrity of the brand, and ensure that it's thematically based on the film."
"Barbie speaks directly to girls," Ross says, "and she empowers girls to be smart, to be leaders, and to be heroes."
Enter the Bratz
While Barbie may represent 40-plus years of girl power -- along with a high-fashion wardrobe, a dream house and a toy car cool enough for Ken -- MGA Entertainment's Bratz dolls have been gaining market power in a short period of time. The concept behind the Bratz dolls is that they are teenaged girls from socially and economically diverse backgrounds -- and they dig fashion. The pouty Bratz dolls have quickly become a popular toy line and girls' lifestyle brand since their introduction in 2001.
In November 2006, Lionsgate secured the North American home entertainment distribution rights to the Bratz animated and direct-to-DVD features. The first title released by Lionsgate is Bratz Fashion Pixiez, an all-new direct-to-DVD. Lionsgate will also be distributing the upcoming live-action Bratz movie.
"Bratz has been a phenomenal success story. It's amazing to realize that the property is only [just over] five years old when considering its incredible popularity and penetration in the marketplace," says Lionsgate president Steve Beeks.
Lionsgate has also signed on to distribute the Betsy Bubblegum's Journey Through Yummi-Land direct-to-DVD animated feature, based on MGA Entertainment's fast-growing non-Bratz line of sweet-scented dolls, the Candy Pop Girls.
"Expanding our relationship with MGA for their other properties was a priority for us when we signed the Bratz deal," says Beeks. "Yummi-Land is a wonderful property that lends itself perfectly to the type of high quality, engaging direct-to-DVD feature that has become the trademark of our children's and family division."
Strawberry Shortcake Forever
Another tasty doll getting a direct-to-DVD release this year is Strawberry Shortcake, whose newest adventure is Strawberry Shortcake: Berry Blossom Festival, making its debut in May on DVD from Fox Home Entertainment, American Greetings Corp. and DIC Entertainment. The toys are made by Playmates Toys.
Generating more than $1 billion dollars in worldwide retail sales, the Strawberry Shortcake line is described as "berry successful" -- having evolved into one of the top children's video franchises with over 9.5 million units sold to date. First introduced in 1980 by American Greetings, Strawberry Shortcake became one of the biggest licensing programs of its time, generating more than $1 billion in retail sales between 1980 and 1985. American Greetings and DIC reintroduced the brand in 2003.
As with other animated toy brand DVDs geared toward children and families, the Strawberry Shortcake feature offers both fun and important lessons -- this time about manners and leadership. And while other DVDs offer interactive games and activities, the Strawberry Shortcake DVD includes a Fox Kids Trailer and a toy Festival Crown.
Little Pony, Big Screen
Over at Hasbro, popular girl's brand My Little Pony has also found a niche in the animated direct-to-DVD market. Hasbro advises that the latest release under its deal with Paramount Home Entertainment was a My Little Pony DVD gift set that became available just before the 2006 holidays. The set included My Little Pony: The Princess Promenade, My Little Pony: The Runaway Rainbow and My Little Pony: A Very Minty Christmas. Hasbro reports that each of these animated adventures was a hit on its own in 2005, and collectively sold more than one million units.
The My Little Pony franchise was introduced in 1983 and became a top global mini-doll brand. Hasbro re-introduced the popular brand in 2003, and since then more than 40 million ponies have made their way into little girls' hands.
Targeted at girls aged three to six, the animation for the My Little Pony DVDs has been provided by SD Entertainment, which has produced all of the My Little Pony entertainment since 2003. For this toy brand, the choice was to use 2D animation. "The style of animation and art direction is always critically important to the storytelling, especially with kids," says Hasbro's McCarthy. "We've chosen 2D animation for its simplicity and flexibility in telling the kinds of sweet, child-like stories we want to tell, sprinkled with My Little Pony-style whimsy and magic."
Interestingly, the My Little Pony animated features were shown on the big screen as well as the small one. Through a relationship with Kidtoon Films, My Little Pony animated adventures debuted in theaters across the U.S. as matinee showings.
"Kidtoon Films has been working with Hasbro since the inception of the G-rated matinee program in 2004," McCarthy says. "As part of the Kidtoons' experience, every child attending a My Little Pony movie receives a fun gift, such as a sheet of My Little Pony cutie mark temporary tattoos. Kidtoons has premiered all of the My Little Pony movies in theatres in advance of the DVD release, and the marketing support and great word of mouth derived from the Kidtoon platform has helped drive the awareness of the My Little Pony brand as well as the DVD."
McCarthy says that it takes anywhere from 14 to 18 months to create one 44-minute DVD feature with all of the accompanying bonus material, and admits that the animation is focus tested to be sure kids -- and moms -- enjoy the show. According to McCarthy, Hasbro has more visual entertainment being developed.
Pondering Polly Pocket
Another mini-doll, Mattel's Polly Pocket, was featured in her first full-length direct-to-DVD animated feature in November 2006. In the PollyWorld DVD, Polly takes a trip to an amusement park full of "monster good rides, the ultimate shopping experience and music to the max" -- including a performance by Polly herself and her group, The Pockets. Polly and her classmates compete in a charity version of their favorite reality show, and as in other such DVDs, "there's nothing a little girl power can't overcome!" The animated was provided by Curious Pictures.
The PollyWorld DVD promises "off-the-hook DVD extras," including interactive games and activities, a music video and a fashion magazine, where kids can customize outfits and accessories for Polly, and then print the made-to-order fashion mag.
Despite these enticing blurbs on the DVD packaging, Universal Family Productions' Ross comments that "Polly Pocket is doing all right, but it's struggling to find itself." Unlike iconic Barbie, Polly Pocket is a younger doll brand without a strong mythology behind her.
Ross observes that the lack of "mythology and authenticity" can pose a problem for toy brands making the jump to animated DVDs. For the film to succeed, there must be strong storytelling, and an equally strong back story. "I constantly talk to people about this," Ross says. "For example, I'll say, 'You've got a great robot, but what's his history?' A lot of toys don't offer that sense of authenticity. Other toy-to-DVD brands just slap a story together with cool music. They don't think about the mythology."
One thing that all of the toy brand DVDs have in common is that they are usually released in support of, or coinciding with, a new release of the toy being featured. "While we are offering a DVD product with stand-alone value, there is a brand new toy line, naturally," Ross says. This allows for cross-promotion in many of the retail stores where the DVDs are being sold, so that children who fall in love with Fairytopia Barbie, My Little Pony, Polly Pocket, Bratz, Candy Pop Girls or Strawberry Shortcake can have the real thing to play with.
In fact, some DVDs encourage hands-on interactive play. The Strawberry Shortcake DVD is packaged with a Berry Blossom Festival Crown -- an exact replica from the film -- so that the viewer can pretend to be Queen of the Festival, just like in the movie.
The toys and the DVDs often work together to promote the "evergreening" of the product. Hasbro's McCarthy says, "We approach each expression of My Little Pony storytelling -- whether that's a DVD, a children's book, or a toy -- mindful of the fact that the images and ideas we create will be around for years and years to come. As such, My Little Pony has a 'classic' feel to it, timeless and universal."
"Our goal is to deliver a rich and engaging experience for kids and there are a variety of platforms in which to deliver the fantasy, such visual entertainment, publishing, apparel, toys etc.," McCarthy says. "We select the platforms that are appropriate for the property and audience, and that deliver a seamless fantasy."
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada, with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.