Toys R Us' Fragile Cartoon World...

by Tarleton Gillespie

The logic of the entrance to Toys R Us is not obvious at first glance. Whereas many stores put their big-ticket big-promotion items up front to catch the most eyes, Toys R Us funnels customers through a long aisle of clearance items. Perhaps it's a way to dump storeroom overload, but what it ends up being is a graveyard for licensed toys. Last year's celebrities line the aisle like lost souls; Xena dolls and Small Soldiers remind us to buy smart and fast, because this year's model will be the highlight of next year's garage sale.

Tensions run high at Toys R Us -- there is nearly always the sound of a child, wailing or pouting, piercing the din of the forced air system. Most often it is a child pleading to a beleaguered parent about how they simply must have that toy, how they simply cannot leave the store without it. Much of this agony is a manifestation of the planned obsolescence built into the toy industry, the same obsolescence we are ritually reminded of by this toy graveyard. All toys die, not just the Tamagotchis. Though it was not always this way, toys are now like young movie stars; they burn brightly, then disappear from memory, left to expire in clearance bins like, "Where are they now?" magazine articles. Kids know this all too well, and what's more, they feel it like a stomach ache. "I want this one, Mom." "You have a motorcycle at home, in the closet." "But I don't like my toys!" That child knows that his closet is a toy mausoleum -- a tribute to the once beloved, but definitely not to be disturbed.

A few steps farther and the clearance aisle is a mere memory, a shadowy contrast to the zip and fizzle of the rest of the store. And licensing is clearly the name of the game. The action figure aisle is like walking directly into the television schedule or the film listings: Beast Wars battles Wild Wild West, A Bug's Life crowds out Godzilla, and Major League Baseball, the NBA, and NASCAR compete for shelf space like it's air time on SportsCenter. It's hard to locate a character that isn't already fitted with its own narrative, already appearing on a screen near you.

From the start, animation has been a commercial venture. Winsor McCay knew from his days in newspapers and vaudeville that people would eagerly part with their spare change to see his drawings come to life. He probably did not know that he could also make Gertie plush toys that roar when you squeeze them, package them in boxes that describe Gertie's world and all her dinosaur friends (the woolly mammoth and the sea serpent are available a few steps down the aisle) and sell them at a thousand stores nationwide. However, that realization did come; Felix and Mickey soon graced their own storefront displays. Now we are not surprised that the cartoon world has been cloned in durable plastic and die-cast metal -- and, conversely, that toys can come to life on the screen with the help of ink, celluloid, or computer.

What is, but should not be, surprising are the extremes to which licensing has reached -- beyond the Darth Mauls and the WWF stars and the Catdogs, the licensing ideas often prove downright bizarre and patently absurd. (Such skepticism must tread carefully; the market does have a way of making its own opposing argument. If these toys are moving off the shelf, someone is finding them meaningful somewhere, and while such interest may need explaining, it should not be dismissed.) Barbie now has outfits to match all the NBA teams -- and in these gender-conscious times, Mattel is careful to outfit their star in the uniforms of the players, not the cheerleaders. She also wears 101 Dalmatians t-shirts -- not only can the child buy a licensed product, but they can buy one that "buys" licensed products herself.

Not to be outdone by the aisle of pink, GI Joe has temporarily returned to its doll-sized stature to teach a pro-social history lesson: replicas of Teddy Roosevelt, a "save the tiger" hunter with his white tiger companion and tranquilizer gun, Bob Hope in his USO best, and most peculiarly, a Ted Williams "Korean War fighter pilot" figure -- in his bomber jacket, but nevertheless holding onto his baseball bat and ball.

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Note: Tarleton Gillespie can be lovingly praised and roundly criticized at

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