This is the figure we've been waiting six years to get.
When ToyBiz announced they had the Lord of the Rings movie license, only the hardcore Tolkien geeks were excited - after all, the general public wasn't familiar with the story yet, and therefore wasn't terribly interested. It wasn't until the trailers started to come out and everyone saw just how cool the movie was going to be, how Peter Jackson's work had paid off, that a buzz began to build. A real buzz, not the nerd-fueled kind. Once audiences actually saw the movie, the toys started to really move, and the fanbase grew.
The first time we went to sit in that theatre, we were introduced to an entire world of new characters, and almost all demanded the toy treatment. ToyBiz was very good, for the most part - they made sure that the main good guys and bad guys were all represented in plastic right away, filling in the lesser-tier characters and incarnations as they went. But there was one figure we were all waiting for, and never got.
As the Fellowship moved through the Mines of Moria, the movie followed the videogame rule of ever-increasing boss battles. The theory where every "tiered" threat you face has to be bigger and more dangerous than the last. First was the kraken guarding the outer doors - dangerous, but pretty much stuck in one spot. Then was the Cave Troll - smaller, maybe, but ambulatory, with more attacks. And finally, the biggest boss of the level, the fiery Balrog.
They were once Maiar, the balrogs, of the same order as Saruman, Gandalf and the other so-called wizards of the Third Age. But they were seduced, corrupted by the dark lord Morgoth, before the forming of the world. During the First Age, after the awakening of the elves, the balrogs were most feared among Morgoth's forces, but when his fortress of Utumno was destroyed at the end of the First Age, the few surviving balrogs fled and lurked in the bowels of the earth. Beware the deeping dark, for there the monsters wait; for there still they sleep.
The Balrog was introduced as a presence long before we saw him on screen. Gandalf and Sauruman seemed to know what the dwarves had found when they delved too deep. The goblins in the lower reaches of the mine reacted instantly to the first hint of its approach, fleeing for safety. At the end of an impossibly long tunnel, we see the faintest ember of light, the shifting shadows revealing its progress. The Fellowship races toward the Bridge at Khazad-Dum, and the threat behind them is nearly forgotten in the adventure. Then it appears.
"What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape, maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it."
The floor seemed to ignite, and a great beast rose from within. Clinging black smoke poured from its body as it moved, wreathing it in flame and shadow. This, we knew, was a true terror, even for the stalwart Fellowship. It was an awesome sight, and it practically demanded a toy. Yet none would come.
ToyBiz tried, repeatedly, to make a Balrog that would do justice to the character while still meeting the demands of retail stores regarding price and shelf space. The last report was that they'd gotten one that would cost out at about $15, but Wal*Mart and the other stores still wouldn't bite, effectively killing the idea. Heartbreak! Heartbreak for the LotR fans.
But then, like a distant rumbling, like a glowing ember at the end of an impossible hallway, word came. Hope. NECA wanted to make a Balrog in their Epic Scale series. While ToyBiz focused on the 6" figures, NECA had gone huge, creating 18" behemoths of Aragorn, Legolas and Gandalf. But someone at the company had a brilliant idea - a Balrog that was made within the scope of their license, 18", would be in scale with ToyBiz's 6" figures in a way ToyBiz could never have done.
The Balrog is, simply, beautiful. The top of his head is 17" above the ground, but he's hunched over - if you want to put this monster on a shelf, make sure you have at least 30" of vertical clearance. For a true sense of scale, Balrog Battle Gandalf comes up only to his knee. And, in fact, Gandalf seems about as big around as the Balrog's shin. The physical wingspan is 53". If you're the math-challenged, that's four feet. 4'5", to be precise. Or 134.62 centimeters, for those of you without a real system of weights and measurements.
Speaking of weight, this toy is remarkably heavy. He's got a shipping weight of 35 pounds! You could use the Balrog as a doorstop. Or a murder weapon. And with the wings, that's one unwieldy chunk of plastic.
The sculpt is superb. In the film, the Balrog looked like cooling lava, broken stones over a hot magma core. The sculpt captures that perfectly, with a pebbly texture covering all over. There are spines and ridges running up his arms from his hands, and even his little toes are detailed well. NECA must have had access to the actual designs of this beastie, because you'll see details in this figure that were never apparent in the film. Did you know the Balrog had two large toes flanked by two smaller toes on the outside of the foot and a dewclaw on both sides of each ankle? No, of course you didn't. But whoever sculpted this thing did.
The head is spot-on, as well. Now, that we did see quite clearly before, so any mistakes would have leaped right out. But no, that skeletal face looks just like you remember it, with the threatening fangs pointing in toward the blast oven he calls a mouth.
His horns curve down and inward, and a ridge of flame bursts from his forehead and spills down along his spine like a mane. Now, sculpted flame never looks right, but this is actually pretty close. Maybe the large size helps?
When the first pictures of painted samples showed up online, the long-suffering fans started complaining that the Balrog looked too dark, that the internal furnace had been turned down. Of course, they didn't pay any attention to the fact that those shots were all going for moody, subdued lighting - the final figure looks just like you'd want him to, with a nice reddish-orange peeking through the cracks in his skin. The only places that look under-painted are his biceps; everything else is cracklin' hot. In fact, if anything, the paint could stand to be toned down. Now, obviously the fact that all these pictures were taken with a flash exaggerates the colors, but it would still be nice if the painted sections blended more evenly into the solid bits.
Rather than a boring statue,
the Balrog is an actual articulated action figure. Imagine that! His elbows are hinged, his shoulders are balljoints, and his neck, wrists, waist, hips, ankles and tail are pegged. He's got his flaming sword and whip, which are 13" and 50" long, respectively. Daaamn! Both are painted yellow and orange, and he can clutch either in his right hand. The whip is entirely flexible, surprise surprise, and has four flails at the end, perfect for wrapping around Gandalf's ankle.
The Epic Scale figures all have sound features, and the Balrog is no exception. Press the button on his back and his mane lights up as he growls. Press it again and he repeats, with a longer bellow. Compared to Gandalf's room-rattling cry, the Balrog is way too quiet. The sound is clear, or at least as clear as a guttural roar can be, but it just sounds muted. The lights are nice, though, and getting even a quiet growl is better than no sound at all.
The folks at NECA absolutely busted their butts to get the Balrog out, working for years to make this figure a reality. Seriously -
they had the prototype with them at SDCC 04, and the thing just came out this week, the middle of August, two years later. When they couldn't get support from even the low end of the Big Five retailers, they went entirely online. When the thing was becoming too expensive, they scrapped the packaging - the Balrog ships directly to you in its mailer box. No fancy window boxes driving up the price here: the Balrog is packed like a vacuum cleaner, with cardboard slats holding everything in place and the manufacturer information printed on the outside. Apparently there were only 2400 of these things made - the boxes are numbered.
The creation of the Balrog was a constant struggle, but they delivered everything they promised; it's in scale with the ToyBiz LotR, it has light and sound features, it's poseable... it's perfect. There's no question that you'll have to lay out some serious cash to bring him home - he's retailing between $100 and $125, plus shipping - but as the absolute capper to the LotR toys, as an inter-company toy crossover, as the one figure we've wanted since we first sat in that darkened theatre? YOU SHALL NOT PASS... up the chance to own this big boy while you can.