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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Ideal “JAWS” Game and Kenner’s ALIEN figure

As a lifelong fan of toys (at 43 years of age I still walk through the toy departments of stores) I often get time to sit back and reminisce on toys from my youth both those that I had and those that I did not.  Two toys that I did not have were the “JAWS” game by Ideal and the ALIEN figure by Kenner though I remember seeing both for sale in the stores at the time that they were available for purchase and I think that I played the Jaws game a time or two at some point in my youth.

Toys taken from movies that no kid was ever supposed to go see.

You have to wonder about the mindset of toy marketing execs … here you have two toys designed from the core creatures of (at the time) rated R splatterfests that were terrorizing adults in theaters.  Think about it, toys for children taken from the core creatures featured in movies that children aren’t allowed to see … that’s a leap of faith there, folks.  I can imagine a parent giving a child one of these toys and when the child looks up with questioning eyes the parent merely says 

“Here’s a toy representing an unstoppable biological death machine that tears people limb from limb while repainting the entire area with the blood of its victims and decorating said space with the entrails from the dead bodies.  Have fun, kiddo!”

In the mid 1970’s, the movie “JAWS” was responsible for putting a real fear of open water and the beach in a lot of people.  ALIEN couldn’t really do that, since it took place in space and, despite what we’d been told as kids since the 1950’s, even by 1979 families just weren’t taking their vacations in space.  The beach, however, was a different matter.  I’d question the values of any parent that took a child to see either “JAWS” or “ALIEN” but I can’t since while I didn’t see “JAWS”, my father did take me to see “ALIEN” in 1979 and, suffice to say, it scared the weasel piss out of me (I was 9 at the time).  Today, ALIEN and ALIENS are two of my favorite movies but back then, to a kid who was all into Star Wars and for who aliens were cute or cuddly things, seeing ALIEN was a real mind-fuck.

As such, who were the marketing executives who looked at “JAWS” and “ALIEN” and said “You know, I bet we can make some toys for kids from those movies!”  I don’t know who those people were, but the toys were actually made and marketed with mixed results.

The “JAWS” game was sold by IDEAL (previously known for their Evel Knieval series of toys) and kids had to wonder about the background to this game.  It was pretty simple, along the lines of “the straw that broke the camel’s back” game theory, in that there was this big plastic shark that you loaded his hinged jaw with items (including a human skull and a femur bone) and you used a hook on a pole to “fish” the items out, one at a time.  I’m assuming that the items all weighed different amounts and that certain combinations would lead to shorter or longer games but that’s something for Rainman to figure out (“Definitely the skull.  The skull.  Definitely the skull.”).   

The short of it is that the “game” was over when someone removed an item that took enough weight off the rest of the items to cause the jaw of the shark to either slowly close on the fishing hook or to rapidly shut on the hook (scattering the other parts of the game and probably making a few lesser skilled children wet themselves).  Even though the game was harmless, for the most part (I’ve never met anyone who had to have therapy for playing it in their youth) the decision to market a toy based on an R-rated horror movie proved that the dollar will always win over common sense.

Fast forward a few years to the edge of the Star Wars marketing supernova, a retail marketing chain reaction set off by the blockbuster movie and George Lucas’ foresight to retain marketing rights for merchandise from the movie itself.  Kenner rode a treasure train to unheard of profit in the late 1970’s with their line of toys from the Star Wars movie.  In fact, Star Wars and Kenner’s success was such that a string of copy-cat movies and toys soon appeared.  If it dealt with space, aliens, spaceships and laser guns chances were better than good that someone in Hollywood was going to throw some money your way and that a toy company was going to want to do some toy based off of your movie.

And so it was with Ridley Scott’s blockbuster sci-fi horror masterpiece, “ALIEN” which came onto the scene a full two years after Lucas’ “Star Wars.”  Where Star Wars was a fairytale of good triumphing over evil, ALIEN was a much narrower and smaller story.  Star Wars was grandiose space opera at its finest, the best of the old Buster Crabbe / Flash Gordon / Erol Flynn movies in vibrant eye melting color and accompanied by a soundtrack the likes of which could be compared to the all time great composers.  ALIEN, on the other hand, was biological, xenomorphic death in dark tunnels, dimly lit rooms and a splatterfest in space.  It was a meat grinder in close quarters, a crew of a commercial ship (no military training, equipment or weapons) is forced by a company protocol to answer a mysterious distress signal and they inadvertently discover an alien life form, an incredibly strong, hostile and violent life form, bring it back onboard their ship and then proceed to die one by one in the most horrible fashion imaginable.

The cantina scene in Star Wars, ALIEN ain’t.

So, Kenner, in their infinite wisdom and riding high on the pride of their super well selling Star Wars toy line, looks at Ridley Scott’s new movie and thinks “I bet we can market a toy based on that new ALIEN movie and sell it to kids … why, let’s market the ALIEN creature itself!”  And do you know what?  They did!  In 1979, Kenner introduced “THE ALIEN” and because it was a rush to market, it was a somewhat poorly made toy that not only came apart under the duress of hard play but also didn’t hold up in storage over the many years that followed.  Expensive, quirky, ill-made and with a sales flow matching that of a constipated snail, the Kenner ALIEN figure was not only a surprise bitch slap in the face to toy maker giant Kenner, it was a good swift kick in their now oversized and proudly displayed dangling tenders as well.


Here is a link to the 1979 Kenner “ALIEN” toy commercial.  When it comes to being scared, I don’t think those kids were acting.  In fact, they were probably rushed from the commercial set and put straight into therapy where they spent the formative years of their teenage lives.

Another problem with the ALIEN figure / toy itself was its large size … think about it.  This toy was huge and at a foot and a half of evil, dark colored plastic ugliness you couldn’t use it with your three and three quarter inch Star Wars action figures because they would look like Fay Wray to King Kong.  Since Kenner didn’t market any of the rest of the crew of the ill-fated commercial towing vessel “Nostromo” in scale to accompany the ALIEN creature, about the only thing this toy was good for was bridging the imagination gap over to the then aging 12” line of Hasbro’s Adventure Team and scaring the ever living crap out of your full size G.I. Joe with Kung-Fu Grip™, especially since there was still a pretty good size difference in the ALIEN figure’s favor.  No wonder Eagle Eyed Joe was constantly looking left and right … you’d be eye sliding like crazy as well if you knew that the Kenner ALIEN figure was in the same room as you, especially with that glow in the dark brain under that clear chitin upper carapace and that inner set of jaws which slid in and out faster than a discount whore’s set of dentures.

Today, both the IDEAL “JAWS” game and the Kenner ALIEN toy figure are high priced relics of bad toy maker decision processes, mistakes in hindsight that didn’t seem like mistakes at the time and which have now found their rightful home in the possession of collectors and toy aficionados.  If you’re looking for one of these items, Ebay is probably your best bet but be prepared to pay through the nose for either of these long out of production toys, especially the Kenner ALIEN figure (when you can find it all in one piece or in pristine condition).