When discussing the greatest movie tie-in toy lines of all time, there's one name that probably won't get its full due for a few more years, but mustn't be overlooked: ToyBiz's Lord of the Rings. It's probably second only to Hasbro/Kenner's Star Wars in terms of longevity and breadth. The last movie came out three years ago, but ToyBiz has had enough success with the property that their final figures came out this year - the figures were still coming out and still popular when the first movie was shown on broadcast television.
They re-released a lot of old toys and created numerous minute variations of the main characters, but they also managed to dig pretty far down into the cast list, and gave us lots of army builders. At the end of the line, they started giving the Fellowship variations electronic features, such as with Balrog Battle Gandalf.
Though thought lost by all in his cataclysmic duel with the great Balrog, Gandalf did not indeed pass permanently out of Middle-earth. Returning beyond hope from fire and death to muster the forces of light, the wizard shed his grey mantle and took up the title of Gandalf the White. The power that had lain veiled beneath his old grey visage now shone undiluted in the eyes of the pale wizard.
It's interesting, getting to compare a character who was released in both the premiere assortment and the very last - we can see how much ToyBiz has grown in the intervening years. It's like seeing your friend's kindergarten photo on graduation day; you can see the connection, and you remember when your friend looked like that, but it still seems odd.
To begin with, the likeness is much better.
Though the original looked remarkably like Sir Ian McKellan back when it was released, it's very soft by today's standards. Balrog Battle Gandalf actually looks like he's living up to his name - he's haggard, and his stringy hair hangs loosely in front of his face. This is a wizard who has been fighting on the run, not sitting in his study sipping tea and playing chess. Even without the "Battle" in front of his name, you look at this figure and you know he's been in for some rough trade.
The sculpt of his robes is both more detailed and more subtle than before. Rather than big, cartoony folds on his clothes, he's got wrinkled ridges and valleys that barely seem to disturb the surface of the cloth, coupled with a few larger drapes that wonderfully suggest the anatomy beneath them. Instead of having all his joints molded into his robes, the vestments are molded from a soft rubber that floats above the actual body of the figure, and his joints are hidden beneath.
Gandalf doesn't have any action features built into him - the original had both a push-button sword attack and a light-up staff - instead opting for the elegance of super-articulation. BBG moves at the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, waist, hips, knees and ankles, and most of that is underneath the aforementioned floating robes.
That's one of the best things ToyBiz did with this line: while other companies were racing to make the best statues they could, ToyBiz took the lessons learned on Marvel Legends and applied them to a movie license. What's better than a figure that re-creates an iconic moment? A figure that re-creates an iconic moment, then re-creates another, then does something else. You know, an "action" figure. What a concept!
The figure's accessories include his sword and staff, but neither of those is the selling point.
Oh sure, they're nice, and look dead accurate, but that's not why you'd choose this particular Gandalf. He comes with a display base that houses the electronics which give the figure his descriptive name. The base, 3 1/4" wide and 1" tall, has a stony texture to suggest the Bridge of Khazad Dum deep within the mines of Moria. Press a button on the base and, well... you can probably guess what happens. What the figure says. Yeah, you got it: "You shall not pass!" Awesome.
The sound chip in this thing is unbelievably loud. Remember how toys with sound used to come out all quiet and tinny? Nope. None of that here. You play this thing at one end of the house, you'll hear it at the other. Gandalf screams his little plastic lungs out, and does it with passion. You actually believe he could get the Balrog to hesitate. Hell, he'll get you to hesitate, and you're a living person standing up to a toy. We don't have a sound file for you to download, because it would blow out your speakers. Instead, we offer this visual interpretation:
And all that out of a base so small? Daaaaaaamn!
Balrog Battle Gandalf was available in two different styles of packaging, which shows off another of this line's strengths. While the packaging may not have changed as often as the Hasbro Star Wars line, for instance, it did evolve over the years.
Originally we had the big, visually interesting "ring" packages, with the curved, fold-open front and the die-cut showcase for the figure. That changed into the slim, space-saving packaging which retained most of the original's strengths while adding a few of its own. Finally, once all the movies were well over and done with, it changed again, to the "Trilogy" style packs, which gave us a mature design while still staying true to what had gone before. Changing the packaging can be a risky proposition (ask Rustin sometime why his Mad Hatter figure can't co-mingle with the other DC animated figures), but ToyBiz was brave enough to do it and managed to pull it off well. Probably didn't hurt that it gave them an excuse to repackage old figures.
The Lord of the Rings movie line was a perfect example of "right company, right property, right time." The movies came out right in the middle of the culture's thirst for fantasy, which definitely played a part in the line's longevity, but the fact remains that no other company could have done even half as well as ToyBiz did. No one will ever name McFarlane's Matrix figures as the best ever, nor Mattel's Harry Potter. SOTA's Tomb Raider? NECA's Sin City? Mezco's Austin Powers, Art Asylum's Crouching Tiger, Playmates' King Kong? They have their good points, but face it: none of them even holds a candle to ToyBiz. The original Star Wars figures only lasted two years beyond the end of the movies, and then there was a 10-year gap before they were resurrected. Maybe one day we'll see more Tolkien toys; if so, it will be interesting to see what improvements have been made.
What would the LotR line have been like if done by another company? Tell us on our message board, The Loafing Lounge.