Netflix’s ‘Toys’ digs into the background of your childhood favorites

The Art of Nerding Out

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As a child, my most prized possession was the original Optimus Prime figure I got one Christmas. Both my younger brother and I were way into the Transformers, and we were amassing our own army of “robots in disguise.” Prime, the leader of the Autobots, was easily the coolest Transformer we had between us, and I loved that lump of plastic all the way up to the time my sister broke his head off. I bawled like a hungry, angry baby that day. It was like a death in the family.

All these years later, I get a warm, tingly feeling whenever I think of my Prime. I get goosebumps when I see a Prime being sold by a vendor at a convention. I don’t really understand why I developed such a bond with a cheap, plasticy, inanimate object. That’s a riddle the new Netflix miniseries, “The Toys that Made Us”, aims to answer.

“Toys” is an eight-episode documentary series. The first four episodes are now available to stream on Netflix, with four more episodes still to come. The current run includes episodes on “Star Wars,” Barbie dolls, “Masters of the Universe” and “G.I. Joe.”

Each episode consists a mix of interviews with folks involved in creating the toys, historical overviews, vintage toy ads, and dramatizations of key moments in the toys’ development. “Toys” moves pretty fast and pitches out a lot of information, but it’s also funny, fascinating and stuffed to the gills with wit and nostalgia.

One of the cool things about “Toys” is that while the focus of the show is on the creations and histories of our favorite childhood toys, each episode highlights a different storyline for each toy line:

  1. The “Star Wars” episode shows how those little four-inch figures revolutionized the toy business, with the line’s success influencing future toy lines, like “G.I. Joe” and “Masters of the Universe.” This episode also spends considerable time addressing the collecting phenomenon that sprang up around “Star Wars” toys.
  2. The Barbie episode plays like a celebrity biopic. It tracks Barbie from her sordid origins to her struggles to stay relevant amid challenges from upstart brands for the toy doll crown, complete with several facelifts. It also spotlights how children’s playthings change to mirror the changes in society at large.
  3. Colorful characters are the highlight of the “Masters of the Universe” episode. The guys who created He-Man and his posse are every bit as interesting and the toys themselves. Roger Sweet and Mark Taylor, in particular, tell witty, hilarious stories about the origin of He-Man and his universe, including the macabre encounter Davis had that inspired Skeletor.
  4. A story of rebirth, the “G.I. Joe” episode details the downfall and resurrection of a “real American hero”. Originally conceived as a 12-inch action figure (not a doll), “Joe” burned out in the 1970s, to be brought back at a smaller scale in the ’80s to compete with “Star Wars.” Teamwork, both of the “Joe” creative team and of the “Joes” themselves, is also shown to be the source of great achievements. And great toys.

“Toys” not only details the history of our favorite playthings, but it also digs into why these toys were so important to us, and how they helped to mold us into the people we grew up to be. According to the show, the toys fired our imaginations and became companions, even friends, and gave us a feeling of control and power that children don’t get to feel in real life. They embedded themselves in our minds and hearts forever.

“The Toys that Made Us” is a fascinating, funny look at how our favorite toys came to be and why we still love them. It will give you a big-time nostalgia rush, and might even leave you feeling enlightened, as well. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to search eBay for a G-1 Optimus Prime.