Vanilla Ice (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II)
Kevin Smith (Clerks)
Rob Paulsen (G.I. Joe: The Movie)
Walter Jones (Power Rangers)
David Yost (Power Rangers)
Tara Strong (Batjman: The Killing Joke)
Netflix’s documentary series The Toys That Made Us is basically the ultimate nostalgia trip for kids from the ’80s and ’90s. The first two seasons offered a pleasurable look back at some of the defining toy lines of decades past and the often rocky road those franchises took from conception to ultimately arriving on the shelves. Season 3 does very little to break the mold, but it does prove there’s still plenty of life left in this formula. With the first two seasons having exhausted most of the more obvious choices of toy lines (Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Barbie, etc.) Season 3 is able to dig a little deeper and explore some less predictable candidates. There’s really only one gaping hole being filled in this batch (that being Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), with the other three episodes venturing down a slightly more esoteric path (My Little Pony, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and pro-wrestling figures).
By now, viewers should know exactly what to expect from the series. Each episode traces the rise of a major toy empire, and, following its creation, the initial hurdles in bringing those toys to market and the meteoric rise and eventual fall of a commercial juggernaut. Along the way, the series features interviews with many of the executives and toy designers involved in the process, along with a handful of actors from the relevant tie-in TV shows. The greatest strength of The Toys That Made Us is how it makes these stories so digestible and entertaining. To borrow a term often used in the series, the subject matter isn’t necessarily that “toyetic.” Talking heads and static images of outdated plastic action figures don’t make for a very dynamic series. While there is archival footage of classic toy commercials and news broadcasts, most of that tends to be of very poor quality.But the series makes the most of that limited material. The rapid-fire editing and the strong sense of humor help punch up what otherwise could be very dry retrospectives on old toys. The series frequently cuts between one interviewee and another, creating a silly sort of banter as competing historical accounts come into conflict. As we’ve seen in past episodes like the Masters of the Universe installment, there’s often sharp disagreement as to who truly deserves to be credited with the creation of these characters. This season has a lot of fun with those disagreements. It also frequently slips in amusing callbacks to past episodes, as we’re starting to see stories intertwine and familiar faces pop up more and more.Again, the worst that can be said for Season 3 is that it does very little to break out of the mold established in earlier episodes. The stories being told tend to follow a very familiar trajectory. Most episodes focus a majority of their time on the creation phase and the blockbuster sellout phase, leaving little room to really explore the sad decline of these toy lines or the efforts to regroup and reboot them for modern audiences. That’s especially frustrating in the My Little Pony episode. While it does explore the genesis of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and the fascinating “Brony” phenomenon, there’s only so much room left by the time the episode reaches that point. Very rarely does a Netflix series leave me wishing the episode run-times were longer, but this is a rare exception.The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode may well be the biggest example yet of the series trying to cram too much material into a 40-ish minute documentary. It’s an engrossing episode, to be sure, especially given how heavily TMNT creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird are involved. Anyone even mildly interested in that particular franchise will surely get a kick out of learning the humble origins of that franchise and seeing Eastman and Laird mend fences on-camera after growing apart in the early ’00s. That said, there’s just so much ground to cover here in terms of the origin of the Turtles, the Turtle Mania phenomenon, and the various efforts to reinvigorate the franchise over the years. TMNT could have easily filled an entire four-episode season on its own, and it’s almost a shame creator Brian Volk-Weiss didn’t go in that direction. Dedicated seasons may still be an angle worth considering down the line, especially as the series slowly exhausts the A-List names.Power Rangers fans may find that particular episode slightly frustrating in that it tends to downplay the toys themselves in favor of the TV series. But to its credit, that episode seems to recognize where the truly interesting story is to be found. Unlike many of these properties, the Power Rangers toys are an extension of the TV series, not the other way around. And it’s quite the journey learning about the long, uphill battle in convincing American TV networks to air a show full of dubbed Japanese sentai scenes and outlandish robots. The wrestling episode is the one Season 3 installment which does manage to veer off the beaten path somewhat. That may simply be because the story behind those toys is less straightforward and harder to squeeze into that standard “rise and fall and return” formula. It’s a complicated web of competing toy manufacturers and rival pro wrestling leagues, creating a saga of success and betrayal and heartbreak that winds up evoking the theatrical melodrama of wrestling itself.The Toys That Made Us continues to be a must-watch for anyone who hoarded action figures or dolls as a child and wants to relive that childhood fun. Season 3 sheds light on four more major properties and their respective rises and falls. Only one of these episodes does much to venture outside the series’ carefully honed formula, and the relatively short length can sometimes be constraining. Still, the series manages to celebrate these childhood favorites with wit and energy.