15 Ill-Advised Toy Lines Based on Movies
At any given point, the toy aisle in every major American retailer is lined with figures based on movies like The Avengers, Star Wars, and Spider-Man. It’s been that way for decades. And with the right movie and the right figures, a toy line can generated millions of dollars for a Hollywood studio. With the wrong movie, though, the results can be disastrous — or at least hilarious in retrospect.
Below, you’ll find 15 of the most ill-advised toy lines based on movies in history. These are not The Avengers. They’re barely the 1998 Avengers starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman. But they all got toys. Lots of toys! Someone thought kids would want these. It didn’t always work out that way. In chronological order, they are...
Planet of the Apes (1974)
The Planet of the Apes became one of the first movie franchises to get a toy line when the Mego company began producing action figures based on the series in the mid-1970s. The Apes became a big merchandising hit, but when you really stop and think about what these films are about — human extinction, apes conquering the world, the planet Earth being literally obliterated by a doomsday nuclear bomb — they are kind of a strange thing to market to children. Some of that strangeness is reflected in the vintage commercials for these toys, which include one where children play as the apes as they round up humans and toss them in jail. Hooray!
At least the Planet of the Apes movies, as dark as they sometimes got, were rated G or PG. Ridley Scott’s Alien was a hard R horror film about a creature that gestates inside of human beings and bursts out of their chests. What child wouldn’t want one of their very own?!? Kenner, likely desperate for anything to sell to sci-fi fans in between Star Wars movies, planned an entire line of Alien toys, but poor sales and controversy from angry parents killed the rest of figures.
Alien might have been creepy, but at least it was a massively popular cultural phenomenon. Dune was ... Dune, a David Lynch movie based on a dense and complicated science-fiction novel involving advanced alien races, giant sandworms, and mind-expanding drugs. You know, for kids! The Dune toy series is astonishingly large, and includes an “action” figure of the enormous, floating Baron Harkonnen, kid-sized “Weirding Modules” like the ones wielded by the heroes, and even toy worms. What spice were the LJN executives smoking when they greenlit this?
War heroes are a tried-and-true toy staple, so you can’t fault the basic logic behind making a line based on Commando, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle where he plays a one-man army fighting to rescue his daughter from an evil dictator. Still, had anyone at Diamond Toymakers seen Commando? It’s another R-rated slaughterfest, about a hero who kills hundreds of men. He chops one dude’s arm off, and cuts another guy’s head in half. Commando isn’t the only R-rated action movie that got turned into a toy line for children, but it’s one of the only ones that didn’t have an affiliated cartoon show explicitly designed for kids. (Rambo, for instance, only became a toy after he was first given his own children’s series, Rambo: The Force of Freedom.) Still, the likeness on this thing is pretty darn good for its day.
If there’s one thing children love, it’s playing with toys that actively make them think about their mortality. While Beetlejuice did get its own animated series, its toy line was directly based off the Tim Burton movie about a dead couple trying to get rid of the new owners of their house, and recreated some of the title character’s more disturbing transformations in plastic form. This commercial is selling children a “playset” that’s straight-up a grave and a headstone. I get that The Real Ghostbusters was a gigantic toy hit around this time, and this was an attempt by Kenner to replicate its success. Still seems kinda nuts that they were selling toys where the fun part is burying your action figure alive.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
While it’s mostly tame by today’s standards, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (like The Terminator before it) was an R-rated movie for adults. But Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appeal by the early 1990s crossed generations, and Terminator 2 sparked an enormous line of action figures, vehicles, and playsets, allowing children to recreate the apocalyptic war between man and machine. I owned many of these toys as a child, and it didn’t seem weird at the time. Now I look at them and think to myself “No way in hell I would ever let my child play with these actual death machines.”
James Cameron was the undisputed master of making R-rated movies that became cultural touchstones for children. More than a decade after the first attempt at a xenomorph-based toy line, and not long after Terminator 2 got the action figure treatment, Alien got back in the game with a more expansive and popular set, based on Cameron’s 1986 sequel about a group of Space Marines investigating an E.T. attack on a colony. Supposedly these Kenner toys were based on a proposed cartoon series called Operation: Aliens that never made it to air. The show was canceled, but that didn’t stop them from releasing the figures, which mostly feature human characters from the Aliens movie who die horrifying deaths.
Around the same time, Kenner also launched a line of toys based on Predator, the third Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle of this period to get a morally questionable action figure offshoot. These toys weren’t quite as close to the film and mostly featured variations on the famous Stan Winston creature design. Then, right around the same time the franchises began meeting in comics and video games, Kenner combined Aliens and Predator into a joint toy series. Fun has never been so gorily inappropriate.
Demolition Man (1993)
At a certain point in the mid-1990s, it seemed like every science-fiction movie got a toy line, regardless of whether the material demanded it or not. Demolition Man is an underrated, (borderline magical) film, but I never would have thought to make toys out of it. It’s not based on anything kids know, it was never going to become a franchise, and it’s gleefully violent and profane. Naturally I would have murderdeathkilled someone for a John Spartan back in the day; today one sits proudly in my office.
Unlike a lot of movies on this list, Coneheads isn’t “inappropriate” for children. It’s more inappropriate for toys. Who wants to “play” Coneheads? Sure, it’s fun to do the voices of these old Saturday Night Live characters, but did children of the early 1990s yearn for the opportunity to pretend they were Dan Aykroyd’s Beldar, eating Subway sandwiches and consuming mass quantities of beer? Actually, I was a child in the early ’90s so I am qualified to answer that question: No, they did not. It’s kind of cool that a Michael McKean figure exists, though. (That’s him on the right.)
On the other hand, kids love Kevin Costner. Both then and now. Can’t get enough of him. Any chance to play with a toy Kevin Costner, they take it and run with it. Or swim with it, in the case of the massive Waterworld toy line that was created to tie-in to this famous Costner flop. At a certain point, a toy line almost became a status symbol; if you were a big movie, you had to have one, whether or not there was any indication the film would be a hit or that children would want to buy them.
Starship Troopers (1997)
This almost seems like a prank. Starship Troopers toys? That’s a joke that would be in Starship Troopers! But it wasn’t; these were real. They made soldiers, aliens, and even Micro Machines of the ships and “bugs.” Some of them are hideously ugly and look vaguely like sexual organs! I can’t imagine they were hot sellers. What responsible parent would buy that for their child?
Battlefield Earth (1999)
Speaking of hideously ugly toys: There are Battlefield Earth action figures! If you want John Travolta with giant dreadlocks, six fingers on each of his hands, and a “psychlo blaster,” that is a thing you can possess. The packaging for the Forest Whitaker figure actually boasts that it comes with “dead rats!” The dead rats are a selling point! “Ooh, dead rats! I’ll take four!”
Little Nicky (2000)
As we move into the 21st century, ill-advised toy lines begin to dwindle, in large part because the market for collectibles became more focused on adults than children. McFarlane Toys specializes in those kinds of adults-first figures, and I would assume that‘s who they expected to buy these toys based on the rabidly unpopular Adam Sandler comedy Little Nicky. Still, if the subject matter wasn’t questionable enough, some of the individual figures are almost trollingly unappealing, like this one of a sleeping Sandler on a radiator. Can’t wait to open him up and role play a nice refreshing nap!
Jonah Hex (2010)
Last and almost certainly least are these toys from one of the biggest box office flops of the century, based on the DC Comics’ Western series Jonah Hex. Maybe the comic-book connection justifies this one somewhat, but even if the film had been better and done okay in theaters, it still would have been an extremely niche concept for a line of figures. NECA made three toys inspired by this bomb, including one of the few John Malkovich toys ever created. If you want one they can be found on eBay. They are ... not expensive.
Gallery — Can You Guess the Actor Based on Their Action Figure?